Abel Gance’s epic anti-war statement, J’accuse, was the first great pacifist film, to put alongside such classics as The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front. It was also the first major statement in artistic terms condemning the insanity of WWI, and it remains a potently angry indictment of mindless military ambition and aggression. Gance himself, who had experienced the loss of many friends in the War and witnessed its futility at first hand, called it a ‘modern tragedy… a human cry against the bellicose din of armies’. Like Gance’s other masterpieces, La Roue and Napoléon, it was boldly experimental and innovative, and was a huge box-office success, in Britain and North America as well as France. This new, colour-tinted restoration by the Netherlands Film Museum, in collaboration with Lobster Films, is therefore both timely (when would it not be?) and welcome, drawing upon six different print sources from archives around the world. The story concerns a pacifist poet, Jean, in love with Edith, who is married to François. Both men join the army. Edith is captured and raped by German soldiers, deported and has a child. François is killed, while Jean, shell-shocked and driven insane, evokes the ghosts of the war dead in a climactic sequence of unique visual impact, heightened by the appalling irony that 80% of the soldier-extras enlisted lost their lives days later at Verdun. A film of lasting power and relevance. —bfi
Abel Gance was the major figure among directors in 1920s French film, and among the most ambitious visionaries of the silent cinema. Fueled by literary ambitions from childhood, Gance began working as an actor at the age of 19, with the ambition of breaking into playwriting. In 1909, Gance managed to get a job writing movie scenarios for Gaumont and, by 1911, was directing them. None of Gance’s earliest films survive, but his first viewable effort demonstrates that he was already pioneering the use of unusual visual effects. In the short La Folie du Docteur Tube (1915), Gance uses an anamorphic lens to illustrate the story of a mad doctor who uses a ray to twist everyday objects and people out of shape. Gance gained his first good notices from critics with Mater Dolorosa (1917), a genuine tragedy without a “happy ending,” relatively rare in French cinema of the day. With this film, Gance began to use editing and camerawork to project the interior thoughts of his characters.
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Coming on the heels of the armistice, Abel Gance makes the first, and arguably still the greatest of all anti-war films; a sweeping epic in which everyone, including the tragic love triangle at the center, is damned from the get-go. “The Big Parade”, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and “Paths of Glory” follow down the line, but nothing is as powerful as Gance's dancing ring of skeletons.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents Kevin Brownlow’s restoration four times. And that may very well be it for quite some time.
From Abel Gance's J'accuse! (1919); cinematography by Marc Bujard, Léonce-Henri Burel, and Maurice Forester.
"In a stroke of fortune for Bay Area movie lovers, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) presents a second 2009 Winter Event this