Sunday, June 26, 2011


"J'Accuse"....No, I am not thinking of Emile Zola's famous 1898 newspaper editorial in which he charged an anti-Semetic French government of having railroaded army officer Alfred Dreyfus through a courts martial and to Devil's Island. Instead, I refer to Abel Gance's silent classic, which has nothing to do with the aforementioned, infamous Dreyfus affair. I love silent movies, and like all films, they can provide an excellent window into the time they were made. J'Accuse was filmed in 1919, shortly after the conclusion of the First World War and captures clearly the post-war disillusion and loss felt in France. Everyone's life is changed in some deep way and the image of dancing skeletons constantly reminds viewers of war's deadly choreographed nature. Uttered by one the film's central characters, Jean Diaz, the phrase J'Accuse resonates throughout the film. He uses to allege that the government prolongs the war, grounding down and killing an entire generation, for no real reason. He also uses the phrase to tell those who remained on the home front that while their sons, husbands, and fathers fought, they did not do honor them enough. This comes out vividly in a great and bizarre scene at the end of the movie when the dead rise up from their graves and march into the village where their presence terrorizes their guilty family and friends. This was some great cinematography. Finally, Diaz uses J'Accuse to call the survivors to make the post-war worthy of those who died in the titanic and tragic war by ushering in a new era of peace. Too bad there was a veteran of the German Army who had quite other ideas. One of the best features of the film is that incorporates authentic battlefield footage Gance shot on the front during combat.

I have seen a spate of World War I movies recently and J'Accuse stands out in my mind as the best. Dawn Patrol (1938) was interesting, especially as it was filmed on the eve of the second global conflict. What I found interesting about this film is that each succeeding commanding officer of the high casualty British flying corps squadron depicted in the film did exactly what they criticized the previous commander of doing. So, I wonder if this was just a statement on the nature of command during war, or some comment on a future conflict. Meaning, "Even though we thought, like Jean Diaz, that we could institute a new era of peace, we have to fight a war anyway, just like the previous generation we called butchers." I also recently saw All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) again. Another excellent movie, but I always find the ending depressing. One poingaint similarity to J'Accuse. In both cases soldiers on leave go back to their towns and are surprised by the attitude of the old men who seem to think the front lines have fossilized not from trenches or machine guns, but from a want of courage and determination. Finally, King and Country (1964). A British soldier played by Dirk Bogarde (who I always mix up with Roddy MacDowell for some reason) gets shell shock and just walks away. He is eventually sentenced to death. I found the psychology of the movie intriguing. So much of military training is based on getting the soldier to act without thinking, to obey and to do, to pull the trigger. In this sense, Bogarde's character follows an automatic impulse as soldiers are required to do, but just the wrong one. And he is at a loss to explain it, as he might be at a loss to explain how he can charge a trench through a hail of machine gun bullets.

Back to silent movies. I would also recommend Miss Mend (1926). A Soviet film, it captures their paranoia about being attacked. In this case by evil capitalists (who else would be the villain in a communist movie) who want to test their war making product with terrorist attacks inside the Soviet Union. And last but not least, Metropolis (1928). This film captures the corporatist spirit that resonated in the late 1920s. The workers are mere extensions of machines, slaves living in a dank subterreanen world while the rich elites live in the fresh air with all the amenities and luxuries money, light, and fresh air can provide. A crisis threatens to destroy both worlds which creates the spirit of corporate cooperation. In a sense it is like Gabriel over the White House (1933) -- which is a must see -- in that it recommends a panacea in the form of a governmental and social system strongly resembling fascism. Of course, we know what happens after 1939 to discredit the disasterours systems lauded in these films, but for a time they seemed like the solution to the great problems of the day.

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