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)
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WAR-net meeting

This post was contributed by Kate McLoughlin of the Department of English and Humanities.

On 9 March 2012, I organised the fourth biannual WAR-Net meeting at Birkbeck. The meeting was a showcase of members’ interests. Papers ranged from Virtual Iraq to the comedy of war in eighteenth-century novels and prints. Panels covered Holocaust representation, the First World War, the Second World War, visual representation and gender. 

The opening keynote, by Professor Debra Kelly of the University of Westminster, was a fascinating exploration of the Free French presence in Second World War London, a presentation that resonated with many of the French delegates to the conference.

Professor Mary Favret closed proceedings with a keynote on wartime Britain’s Fast and Humiliation, a thought-provoking presentation on an eighteenth-century practice now most closely mirrored by the twenty-first-century apology. 

You can download speakers’ abstracts and listen to podcasts of the keynote talks on the WAR-Net webpages.

 

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Service and Sacrifice: Colonial Troops and the First World War

A seminar given by Professor Sonya O. Rose on 14 March 2012

This post was contributed by John Siblon, a part-time MPhil/PhD history student at Birkbeck College.

Professor Rose is Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and Honorary Professor of History at the University of Warwick (UK) and a Visiting Fellow of Birkbeck College.

What did it mean to serve in the Colonial armies of the British Empire in the Great War? Were those who volunteered conscious of a ‘national project’ for which they were prepared to pay the ultimate price? Is sacrifice an appropriate concept to explore the colonial participation in the war effort? Did colonial subjects actually volunteer for war service? These were some of the questions that Professor Sonya Rose raised in her paper. For the purpose of the seminar, a comparison was made between the service of Indian and Irish troops. Historical scholarship has recently afforded more effort to the study of the colonial war service in the Great War. These studies have outlined the importance of the colonial contributions to the eventual outcome of the conflict. The rhetoric of sacrifice and service therefore applies as much to the colonies as to British and dominion forces.

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