Tag Archives: France

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)

Music and Class, a talk by Susan Alexander-Max

This post was contributed by Dr Nathalie Wourm, a lecturer in French Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of European Cultures and Languages and co-director of Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community (BRAKC)

Susan Alexander-Max is not only a PhD student here in the Department of European Cultures and Languages at Birkbeck, she is also a renowned musician, a fortepianist and clavichordist. Susan is also the founder and director of The Music Collection, a gathering of world famous musicians dedicated to the performance with authentic instruments, of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and their contemporaries, around the fortepiano. It was a pleasure to welcome her for a talk on music and class, as part of the seminar series organised by Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community.

Susan’s PhD in French studies focuses on writer Marcel Proust, and his relationship to music. Here, she combined her interests, to provide examples of the discussion of class taking place in music, from Molière to Beaumarchais, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Proust, and film director Alain Resnais. But the premise of her argument centred around two famous works, ‘Summertime’ by George Gershwin, and John Cage’s 4′33″. Susan started by “performing” 4′33″ in front of a silent keyboard and empty sheet music. The sounds heard by the audience at 43 Gordon Square were numerous, from the loud tick tock of the room’s clock, to the buzzing noises of the projector and computer, to the outside sound of ambulance sirens and students chatting on the pavement. The point was made; the deconstruction of preconceived views of what constitutes music is at the source of Susan’s argument that music is classless, but that defining it is what creates boundaries and social divisions. Other examples of the deconstruction of music were taken from Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and Michael Haneke’s film Caché and were convincing in showing how blurry the limit between spoken language and song can be, or between everyday noises and the playing of instruments. In that sense, Susan argued, defining what is and what is not music is an artificial exercise. The bourgoisie use their definition of music as a tool to isolate themselves from the rest of society. Susan’s talk was topical, as it is only a week ago that, in The Guardian, Daniel Barenboim was criticising ‘the traditional training of musicians in conservatoires around the world, accusing them of isolating young performers from the realities of politics, ideas and history.’ Barenboim claimed that he wanted to be ‘a terrorist for music education’ (The Guardian, 25 April 2012).