J’accuse (1919)

J’ACCUSE (1919)
aka I Accuse
Article 4783 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 3-17-2015
Directed by Abel Gance
Featuring Romuald Joube, Severin-Mars, Maryse Dauvray
Country: France
What it is: Anti-war epic

A poet is in love with a married woman who is married to a brutish and jealous man. When war breaks out, the woman is kidnapped by German soldiers, and both the poet and the husband join the army, and end up in the same unit.

Like the last feature length silent movie I’ve seen (CIVILIZATION), this is an anti-war movie. However, there are at least two major differences between the two movies. Whereas the earlier movie was made before its American audience got involved in World War I, this one (intended for French audiences) was made after the war had ended and people were ready to take stock of the event. Also, whereas the earlier movie suffered from preachiness and a tendency to be simplistic, this one chose instead to anchor itself in a solid story and to take a good look at the cost of the war to the human soul. Usually I don’t care for movies where the central plot element is a love triangle, but they’re rarely used to as good an effect as this one does. I’m impressed that the movie goes in unexpected directions; for example, when the poet and the husband end up in the same unit, I wasn’t expecting that their love for the same woman would end up actually making them bond. I also admire the way they ultimately manage to make the brutish husband a sympathetic character and one capable of growth. I also think the ultimate message of the movie is more complex than simply “War is Bad!”; rather, it seems to saying that if there is war (and there will be), than it is up to the survivors to live their lives in a way that actually made it worth being fought. As for the fantastic content, there is a certain grotesque feel to some of the scenes, and there’s a repeated visual motif of dancing skeletons. However, the primary content occurs at the climax, but since it’s the most famous scene of the movie, it’s not a huge spoiler; those who died in the war rise from their graves and march on the living, and even though it may be a mass hallucination, the movie leaves the reality of the event rather ambiguous. I found this one powerful and immensely moving.

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