Silent Film Festival: J’Accuse

There’s something very exciting about being present at the rediscovery of a classic. I, plus several hundred other people, experienced that excitement Saturday afternoon at the U.S. premiere of the restored J’Accuse, Abel Gance’s 1919 anti-war masterpiece.

This was part of the Silent Film Festival Winter Event. You can also read overview of the event.

J’Accuse premiered in France in the spring of 1919, only a few months after the war it’s about ended. United Artists released it in the U.S. in 1921, but it was a shorter, tamer version. Gance’s original version—or something believed to come close—has recently been restored. Saturday’s screening was the first public presentation of that version in the United States.

Quite simply, this is the best feature film I’ve seen made before 1920. Involving, heroic, epic (it’s set over four years and runs nearly three hours) and yet intimate in its human drama.

And no, the story has nothing to do with Émile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair.

Gance uses a love triangle to examine how the “Great War” effected the people in a provincial French town. The sensitive Jean (Romauld Joub) loves Edith (Maryse Dauvray). She loves him, too, but she’s married to the drunken brute François (Sverin-Mars). François is actually the most complex and interesting of the three. An absolute horror before the war starts, and a hero in the trenches, he eventually comes to respect and love his rival. And while the brute is always below the surface, there’s more to him than that. All three leads give complex, impeccable performances.

J’Accuse is a human story set against the horrors of war, but it’s no pacifist tract.  François becomes a better man for his experiences in the trenches. Gance added a fair amount of French nationalism. There’s no suggestion that the other side is suffering as well. The movie doesn’t discuss, let alone condemn, the leaders that turned Europe into a slaughterhouse for their own benefit.

Of course, Gance shot the film during the war, with the cooperation of the military. He was working with severe limitations.

The Festival screened J’Accuse with an intermission. The famed composer/arranger Robert Israel (well, famous among silent film fans) accompanied it on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, giving it all the sweep and power that the story deserves. Israel adapted his orchestra score, written and recorded for the DVD release, for this special event.

Speaking of the DVD, that may be the only way you’ll ever be able to watch J’Accuse—at least if you weren’t with me in the audience Saturday. I don’t know if a print will be available for other revival theaters.

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