Watching J’Accuse (1919)

This post was contributed by Dr Ludivine Broch, an Early Career Research Fellow at the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism

‘With the creation of J’Accuse (1919), a new epoch in the life of Abel Gance and in the history of the French cinema begins.’
– Welsh & Kramer (1975)

The French History Network is showing its first film of the 1914-45 in Cinema film series at the Birkbeck next Friday evening. It will start at 18:00, in the Cinema at 43 Gordon Square. Feel free to bring wine & nibbles to share before the film starts.

The chosen film is J’Accuse, which was directed by Abel Gance in 1919. Gance is the director who also directed Napoleon (1927), a film I have not  seen yet – although I plan to do soon.

J’Accuse is a wonderful way to launch the 1914-45 film series. Technically, it was a pioneering work in the dawn of the age of cinema. Politically, it was an anti-war stand. Culturally, it captured the great malaise of post-WW1 France. The last scene is infamous: the ghosts of the ‘unknown soldiers’ who died for France come back to haunt a population who has not understood their sacrifice, who has not honoured their deaths, who has not realised the extent of the death, the loss, and the horror of what happened. Had these men died in vain? 

Gance’s final scene highlighted many of the tensions between ‘anciens combattants’ and civilians which existed in WW1. This is a theme which Henry Barbusse had already picked up on in Under Fire (1917). When one of his characters returns to the front following a few weeks of leave, he is boiling with anger at the French population who complains about the war, about rations, about daily struggles. Their woes, which lie in such sharp contrast to the horrors of the trenches and of the front line are ridiculed, belittled, tossed aside as meaningless and idiotic. More than that, the men on the front begin to feel isolated from the rest of France. Experiences in the trenches create an ever-growing gap between soldiers of modern warfare and civilians. Even railway workers, who were involved in the military effort but exempt from military service, were criticised for not being ‘real’ front line soldiers. Many felt railwaymen had gotten off lightly. To defend themselves, railwaymen constantly argued that, although they were not front line soldiers, they were ‘soldiers of industry’, risking their lives during peacetime as well as wartime.

But J’Accuse also marked the beginning of a widespread phenomenon: the commemoration of the dead. Far from being forgotten, the ‘anciens combattants’ haunted France’s landscape throughout the interwar period. Street names, memorials, ceremonies, associations… physical reminders of their death were everywhere. This of course was not a purely French phenomenon: Britain and Germany also experienced a vivid and tangible commemoration process.

To fully grasp the trauma of post-WW1 France, come along to watch J’Accuse on 1 March 2013. For, in my view, if anything can explain the start of WW2, and the development of post-war Europe, it is first and foremost the remains of a fragmented society in 1918.

To further contextualise J’Accuse, I would recommend the following articles:

  • Joëlle Beurier, ‘La Grande Guerre au Cinéma’, Vingtième Siècle, n.108 (Oct-Dec 2010)
  • James M. Welsh & Steven Philip Kramer, ‘Abel Gance’s Accusation against War’, Cinema Journal, vol. 14, n°3  (Spring, 1975)
  • David Williams, Media, Memory and the First World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009)
  • Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1995)

One thought on “Watching J’Accuse (1919)

  1. David Williams

    Your discussion group might be interested in my more recent work on Abel Gance’s “J’accuse” in relation to ghost-narratives of the First World War. See David Williams, “Spectres of Time: Seeing Ghosts in Will Bird’s Memoirs and Abel Gance’s ‘J’accuse,'” which appeared in “Canadian Literature” 219 (Winter 2013): 113-30. The essay explores the unsettling effects of cinema on perceptions of time in that historical period, and further traces the cultural consequences of this “ghost in the machine.”


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