Abel Gance Before ‘Napoleon': ‘J’Accuse’ and ‘La Roue’
In advance of the American premiere of the fully restored edition of Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon in Oakland on March 24, Turner Classic Movies presents two of the auteur’s earlier films: J’Accuse (1919), which appropriates the cry leveled by Emile Zola during the Dreyfus affair to decry the horrors of World War I, and La Roue (1923). These films—the sole silent films from the director currently available to American audiences (both are also available on DVD from Flicker Alley)—make clear that there was no director like Abel Gance in the silent era. One of the great technical innovators and visual artists of his time, Gance was a master conductor of the cinematic form. He transformed dramatic stories into emotional symphonies, and these two films are among the most stirring of the era.
Abel Gance began shooting J’Accuse, his harrowing anti-war drama, while the trench warfare of World War I was still grinding up soldiers on both sides of the battle. Such sentiments were certainly not encouraged by a government straining to support the war effort, but the time was ripe when it finally came months after it ended. France was devastated and the film is appropriately devastating, all but announcing its intentions in the opening titles, spelled out in the fallen bodies of soldiers dropping the ground as if in death. The story itself begins as a love triangle melodrama of star-crossed lovers ripped apart by war and transforms into a veritable love story between two men, comrades in arms brought together by battle and the mutual love of the same woman, but this is no romanticized portrait of courage and comradeship forged under fire.
By the third act, which opens on the rictus grin of a dead soldier, all fantasy of the glory of battle is buried in the mud and blood of the new industrial warfare and no one, soldier or civilian, escapes unscathed. Gance’s camera lights upon the faces of real soldiers for a heartbreaking sequence where muddy and brutalized and exhausted men write letters home to loved ones, praying for peace or preparing their loved ones for their (what they believe is inevitable) death. The sentiments expressed were no fiction but real letters from friends of Gance who never returned from the war. The accusations only become more damning as a shell-shocked soldier returns as the conscience of the village, a holy fool who gathers his neighbors together to tell of his haunting vision of the dead soldiers rising from the field of battle and marching home to demand that the human race change its ways and be worthy of their sacrifice.
The cinematic sophistication and visual expressiveness of this 1919 release is astonishing. Throughout the film, Gance intersperses delicate scenes of grace with terrible images of horror. The deathbed of an elderly woman, who has peacefully slipped away while listening to a beloved poem, is lit with ethereal elegance and an almost saintly glow, an image worthy of Griffith’s beatification of Lillian Gish. In the next scene, the terrible rape of an innocent by the enemy is suggested by the looming shadows of distinctively helmeted soldiers filling the frame as the girl cowers below, an image that anticipates Murnau’s use of shadow in Nosferatu a few years later. And most harrowing are the ghosts of the war dead who haunt the film. Their hollow looks and exhausted shuffle were the real thing: Gance used 2,000 real soldiers who were on a one-week furlough. So was much of the battle footage, which Gance shot on the front lines with the cooperation of the French military (which thought they were getting a propaganda piece rather than the anti-war horror that Gance was making).
Even more astonishing than Gance’s evocative images (created under the trying conditions of war), however, is the sophistication of his technique and his storytelling: the rapid editing, the expressionist lighting, the metaphoric imagery, the delicate cinematography. At a time when the nascent art of cinematic storytelling was evolving at a whirlwind pace, J’Accuse anticipated the state of the art by years.
Gance poured himself into his next film La Roue, a production so ambitious and beset by setbacks (physical and personal) that it changed the entire course of his story and the production, which stretched to over three years of shooting on location at the train yards in Nice and in the French Alps. By the time he completed shooting, his beloved young wife died. Did Gance choose the Victor Hugo quote that opens the film—”I know that creation is a great wheel, which cannot move without crushing someone”—because it so resonated with his loss?
Like J’Accuse, La Roue features a romantic triangle set against a massive physical canvas, but in La Roue the romantic drama commands the story. A veteran engineer rescues an orphaned infant girl from a flaming train wreck and raises her with his own son: a widower watching his two children grow, drinking himself into a wreck as he falls in love with his grown foster daughter, while his son joins him in exile when he, too, realizes he is love with his sister. It’s a working class melodrama with grand swathes of tragedy, intense scenes of destruction (the aftermath of a train wreck is an inferno enhanced by bold silhouettes against burning orange tints), and devastating moments of loss and redemption directed with delicate grace.
The scale of the production is astounding. Gance uses the strength and power of the railroad engines world as muscular metaphors for the drive and the strength of their emotional lives. His cinematic command is even more impressive, drawing upon the full range of graphic effects, from irises to dramatic masking, double exposures to composites, and he unleashes this arsenal within the first few minutes. His editing is breathtaking—the rhythmic editing of his furious runaway rain scenes, which built to a staccato fury, inspired Sergei Eisenstein, among others—and his frames of pure power are contrasted with delicate images that convey the fragility of the characters and the depth of their feelings. His technique was years ahead of its time and influenced filmmakers all over the world, but his technical mastery is always in the service of the story. Gance is a master conductor who plays scenes like symphonies of feelings, carrying scenes beyond the narrative point to express the emotional intensity of the characters and situations, and to add moments of pure grace to the mighty drama.
The performances are as dramatic as the effects, a little too dramatic and uncontrolled, to be honest. Séverin-Mars, as Sisif, the engineer, opens the film with a wild-eyed performance, young and intense and passionate, and quickly sinks into sad-sack pathos with just as much exaggeration. Ivy Close, the British actress who plays his adopted daughter, Norma (saved from a flaming train wreck in the blast of an opening scene) overplays the childlike dottiness of a teenage girl, playing the unbridled adolescent while all the men of the train yard eye her with desire. And Gabriel de Gravone, as Sisif’s son, is the tortured artist and the doting older brother from the first scene. Griffith would have tamped these actors down, at least a degree or two. Gance waits until the second half of the film, when it becomes a chamber drama set against the drama of the French alps, to pull his actors back from the brink.
It becomes a kind of visual opera by the end, the performances calming down as the images become more magnificent. He transforms La Roue into an emotional epic.
La Roue premiered in 1923 France at 32 reels in length, shown over the course of three days. It was edited down to 12 reels for distribution and cut even more for export. Much of that material has been lost to time, but this restoration, reconstructed from numerous versions (including two brief but critical scenes from an abridged 9.5mm home movie print) by producers Eric Lange, David Shepard and Jeffrey Masino, brings it back up to 20 reels: the most complete version available since its premiere, running almost 270 minutes. It is an astounding restoration (made possible with the support of Turner Classic Movies).
Both films screen on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday, March 18, a week before the restoration of Napoleon debuts at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. If you are at all moved by the artistry and beauty of these films, consider doing whatever it takes to get to Oakland and attend one of the four shows, which are the only screenings scheduled for the United States in the foreseeable future. Details on the screenings at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival site here.
For more on La Roue, see Kristen Thompson’s video essay on Fandor.