In literature, the phrase J’accuse is most associated with Émile Zola, who used it for the title of an essay accusing the French government of corruption and anti-Semitism in the case of Alfred Dreyfus. (Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer, was charged with treason in a clumsy attempt to cover up a high-ranking spy in the French army) Since then, the term has been used to frame attacks on everyone from Adolf Eichmann to the Rolling Stones. The only usage that comes close to Zola’s moral force and iconic status comes from Abel Gance, whose second film under the title now receives a fine dual format restoration from the BFI.
Gance’s second J’accuse!, from 1938, was part of a wave of remakes in the 1930s and 40s, as studios raced to create sound versions of all their silent catalogue. The underlying assumption – that silent movies were about to be consigned to the dustbin of history – may have been true commercially but it wasn’t the case artistically. Today, many people would agree that the late silents are more exciting and experimental than most early talkies, which can slow to a crawl in order to show off their chief special effect – dialogue.
One of the remarkable things about the 1938 J’accuse! is that it’s a talkie made with silent-movie brio. The opening extended World War I scene is a brilliant, brutal example of Eisensteinian montage, and reveals Gance as an unexpected master of the grindhouse tease – just as you’re comfortable assuming that all the violence will be implied with shots of bullets hitting walls and dead birds, along comes a joltingly nasty shot of a twitching, bloodied hand with a finger blown off.
Gance narrowly avoided conscription in World War I due to ill-health, and he credited this with saving his life. The original 1919 silent version of J’accuse!, unbelievably, was partly shot on the front lines, and some of that documentary footage recurs in the 1938 version. It appears in the battle scenes, obviously, but also in visceral flashbacks that push the hero Jean Diaz to the edge of madness.
One interesting difference between the two versions of J’accuse! is purely historical. In both films, Diaz spends his post-service life as an inventor, trying to create something that will end war forever. That’s a fairly high-flown goal, and viewers of the silent version might be forgiven for finding it naive. The sound version, though, was created just one year before the outbreak of World War II, a point in history when literally everyone except Neville Chamberlain could see there was something terrible on the horizon. Diaz’s efforts appear desperate and doomed, a fatalistic quality which Gance fully embraces. Victor Francen makes a much more hangdog, care-worn Diaz than Romuald Joubé did in the earlier film, and even the opening caption dedicates the film not to the dead of the last war, but to the dead of the next one.
In either version, it’s a powerful watch, but there’s something laudable about the BFI’s decision to present the less-famous one, especially when it turns out to be as rewarding as this. Extras are a little thinner than the BFI’s normal standard, but there’s a fine audio commentary from Paul Cuff, and the restoration itself is of a very high standard. There’s something about seeing the occasional extra grain on, say, a shot of a cannon being fired and realising Gance literally went into a combat zone for that which just gives the film extra power.