When you hear that cinema is an art form there are no better films to see to understand what this means than to watch a silent film. Silent/early films were a true art form from the acting (not all of the actors and actresses were bad) to filming of scenes to the lighting right down to the stories themselves. One silent that is truly an art form is the 1919 French film J’Accuse about the sacrifice of not just the men fighting at the front but the people left at home.
The main characters Jean Diaz, Francois Laurin, and Edith Laurin live in a provincial town in France. The townspeople are happy and celebrating spring. Jean takes part in the merriment but he is distracted by Edith looking out the window of her home. Jean’s mother tells him to leave Edith alone that they had a chance at a relationship a long time ago. Edith is married to Francois who is portrayed as an angry drunken man. Edith and Jean meet in the woods and Francois catches them together which makes him angrier.
Not long later war has been declared. Jean is an artist and a poet. He had been working on a poem called Le Pacifiques (Peaceful) when war comes. War has broken his peaceful world. Francois has been called to the front while Jean is not to report for duty for some time. While Francois is away Edith and Jean are able to see each other. Francois comes home on leave and unfortunately sees his wife with the other man. He writes a letter to his parents telling them that Edith will come and stay with them while he is away.
Edith’s father receives a letter saying that she has been abducted. Jean asks her father what he can do to avenge her. The only way he knows how is to report for duty before he is due to. Jean makes lieutenant and is assigned to Francois’s unit. Francois thinks that Edith is only tricking him when he hears that she has been abducted he thinks she has run away with Jean. When Jean reports for duty Francois does not listen to him. After a few weeks Jean sees that Francois really loves Edith. The two men eventually become friends over Edith.
Francois becomes worried about Jean. He is suffering from severe exhaustion and fever so he puts in that Jean should be sent on leave. The same day Jean comes home Edith’s father receives a letter from her saying that she is safe and to meet her at Jean’s house. Edith comes back looking weary and sad not at all the person she used to be. She removes her cape to reveal a small child, her child. Her father is beyond upset he cannot even look at the child he leaves never to return again. Edith tells Jean that while she was away the Germans had stormed the village and she hid with another girl in a barn. The Germans found her and had their way with her. Jean takes pity in his love and her child a little girl named Angele. He tells Angele that he will teach her to be French and to hate the enemy. The first word he teaches her is “J’accuse.”
Francois is let out on leave at this time. Edith is terrified that he will kill Angele. Jean takes Angele in saying that she is a relative’s child. This works for a while until Francois hears talk. He tricks Edith into admitting that Angele is hers by lying that the little girl drowned. Edith runs to the woods where Jean as taken her daughter and everything is fine. Francois thinks that Angele is Jean’s child and they get into a brawl. Edith shows her husband that Angele is not Jean’s with the birth certificate.
Back at the front Jean and Francois’s unit are set to engage in a deadly battle. Jean writes letters to Edith that are to be sent out over a few months to make her believe he is still alive. As he gives the letters to the postman a bomb come through the trench killing the postman and missing him completely. Jean cracks up and Francois yet again has him sent away. Francois and half the unit die in battle.
Now this film sounds like a typical war melodrama but trust me when I say every action by all the characters have deep meaning. The German’s attacking Edith is meant to vilify them. Jean writing a book on peace shows the horrible mental and emotional trauma the war had on not just him but all men. Even poor Angele did not escape from being victimized because of her German father, the local children put a German helmet on her head and give her a gun pretending to play war.
Director Abel Gance’s commented on the film’s message: “It was intended to show that if war did not serve some purpose, then it was a terrible waste. If it had to be waged, then a man's death must achieve something.” The film’s most emotional and impactful scene was at the end: Jean tells Edith how he had been standing in a field of graves when all the sudden the dead men were brought up from their graves. One of the soldiers got up and told the others to rise to see if their lives were worth sacrificing. Jean came back to the village to tell everyone to meet at Edith’s home where their dead loved ones will come back to see if their sacrifice was worth their lives. He accuses several of the townspeople of profiteering from the war or one of the wives for having a good time in the company other men while her husband was away fighting. The souls of the dead walk into town and come up to the house. Jean tells them not to say a word to them it is better for the soldiers to see them than to hear them speak because it will be harder for their souls to rest. Edith sees that Francois and her father are dead. As the men walk away Jean tells their wives that they were happy to see them once again and that their lives were worth dying for.
I really cannot explain how powerful and heartbreaking and moving this scene was. I believe Hulu has the video for this scene, not from the beginning where Jean sees the bodies come up but from when the souls walk into town. For this scene real soldiers who had come home from the front had played the dead soldiers. Eighty percent of these men had been killed when they returned to the front.
Abel Gance made an incredible film. He actually went to the front and took some footage which can be seen in the film. Gance not only directed the film but wrote the story as well. There are so many special effects that for the time period are very powerful and awesome.
The film from beginning to end is very artistic. It is hard to explain in what ways unless you see it. Well put it this way, if you have ever seen a French film especially older classic French films you will understand. The French have always been artistic so it is no surprise their films would be as well. The lighting in the ending scene is beautiful and I have to say tragic.
J’Accuse is one of the best war films I have ever seen. Abel Gance set out to make a film to show that war is pointless and questions if a soldier’s life is worth the sacrifice not for the country but for their loved ones. Sometimes we are so blind with patriotism that we often do not stop to ask ourselves is the fighting and the lives lost worth it, did we as a nation achieve what we wanted to by fighting. J’Accuse opened by mind and eyes to those questions. The film is not only artistically beautiful but philosophically and poetically beautiful. J’Accuse is a film that anyone interested in history, in war, in film studies needs to see.
"I'm not interested in politics... But I am against war, because war is futile. Ten or twenty years afterward, one reflects that millions have died and all for nothing. One has found friends among one's old enemies, and enemies among one's friends." - Abel Gance