Mention the words “silent movie” and most people will become glassy-eyed or chuckle some comment like “You know they make movies with sound now, don’t you?” It’s not that these people are elitist or snobs about movies. It’s just that the average moviegoer has only seen the occasional silent-film clip that makes it look like people in the early 20th century moved at a very fast pace (films in the silent era were shot at a different speed than modern films), or they expect to hear clunky piano music playing over slapstick-comedy one-reelers. Most people are unfamiliar with the history of motion pictures and fail to realize that many of the techniques we see in films today were originally incubated during that time; they don’t realize that while there were films made for the masses, there were also grand epics shown in glamorous movie palaces with live orchestras accompanying the wonderful images flickering on the screen.
Thankfully, archivists like film historian Kevin Brownlow and director Martin Scorsese continue to educate and inform people about the glorious art made during the birth of cinema. Additionally, Turner Classic Movies continues to air silent films on Sunday nights, and it’s led the way in film preservation by restoring many of the groundbreaking and influential films that have been lost to years of deteriorating film stock. TCM continues its work tonight by airing two epic movies from innovative French director Abel Gance: the pacifist war film J’accuse (8 PM Eastern) and the railroad tragedy La Roue (11 PM).
Gance is considered by many to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but like his contemporaries D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein, his name is unrecognizable to almost everyone. Gance’s crowning achievement as a director is 1927’s Napoleon, which utilized Polyvision, a three-screen method of film projection. Napoleon was restored in the early ’80s just before Gance died, but his reputation as France’s most important filmmaker grew out of the success of his two earlier masterpieces, J’accuse (1919) and La Roue (1923).
J’accuse is a tragic love story told against the backdrop of World War I. Edith (Marise Dauvray) is a young woman living in an arranged marriage to an older man, Francois (Severin-Mars). Her true love is a poet, Jean (Romuald Joube), whom she loves from afar until the war breaks out and all the able men in their small French village are called to join the fight. (The harrowing battle scenes look so realistic because they were shot using actual soldiers on leave from the front line; Gance himself enlisted just so he could use the soldiers as extras.) As Francois and Jean battle the Germans, Edith is captured by enemy soldiers and subjected to horrendous acts, including multiple rapes, leaving her pregnant and scarred for life. Francois returns, believing that Jean is the father of her child. This leads to tragic results for all three characters.
J’accuse is as powerful and gripping as any war movie you will see. Gance does a marvelous job setting up the idyllic French life in the countryside that’s soon shattered by the hounds of war. Because there’s no spoken dialogue and the title cards are limited, we must rely on the actors’ expressions to convey the range of emotions they’re asked to portray, and Gance guides his actors through the treacherous affairs of the heart with a steady hand. Each of the leads has wonderful subtleties that pull you into each moment, and each is able to render you heartbroken as the drama plays out.
Gance also shows his mastery of editing, using a rapid-fire technique and often superimposing one shot over another to symbolically imply the meaning of the film — the eerie image of skeletons dancing around a single skeleton, as if they’re worshiping death, is seared in my mind. It should be noted that Gance’s advancements in the field of editing influenced Eisenstein, who would go on to direct one of the most important Russian films of all time, Battleship Potemkin, which utilized many of the techniques he learned from Gance.
Still, it’s Gance’s point of view that weighs heavy on the conscience as you watch J’accuse. Declared the first major “pacifist film,” you can’t help but think of current events as you view men dying and succumbing to shell shock. Moreover, you’ll come away from J’accuse chilled to the bone during the final sequence, in which dead soldiers rise from their graves and return to their village to confront the living and ask, “Was the price we, the dead, paid worth it?”
J’accuse is followed on TCM by another tragic love story, one full of lust and greed. La Roue uses a train yard as its setting. In the opening, thrilling moments, a young girl named Norma is orphaned after a deadly train wreck. Sisif (Severin-Mars, again), a lonely, single father and railroad engineer, saves the girl and decides to raise her as his own alongside his young son, Elie.
Fifteen years later Sisif is a poor drunk still living in a tiny house in the middle of the train yard. His children are grown — Elie (Gabriel de Gravone) builds violins and other stringed instruments, and Norma (Ivy Close) is an attractive young woman who is the fantasy of many men who work on the tracks. Norma and Elie have developed a strong, loving relationship as siblings; in a sense they realize they’re soul mates, yet they never act upon the feelings they share.
At first it appears that his years working in the smoke and clang of the train-yard environment are the underlying reason for Sisif’s woes. However, we soon learn that the man is tortured by his growing attraction to the woman he calls his daughter. His torment over his lust almost leads to suicide before he begins projecting his grief onto Norma and especially Elie. Finally, Sisif agrees to let Herson (Pierre Magnier), a sneaky, vain businessman, marry Norma. One of the saddest images you’ll ever see is Norma and Herson walking away from the railroad tracks, getting smaller and smaller while the camera’s lens slowly irises. Soon thereafter Sisif is struck blind, and the four characters circle back to each other. Their final meeting leads to the death of one character and the devastation of the others.
Both J’accuse and La Roue are challenging, poetic, and technically astounding. The cinematography will blow your mind, especially when you consider that all of it was shot on location (real battlefields, actual train yards, and frigid mountains). What these two films, like almost all silent films, do is require you, the viewer, to pay close attention. There’s no looking away and listening to the spoken dialogue to follow the action. Because of this, the movies are actually more involving and thus more rewarding. I’ll admit that J’accuse and La Roue are a tad long — they are epics, after all — but this being the digital age, you can easily TiVo both of them and work your way through them at your own pace (though they’re better in one sitting if you have the time).
I should point out that the meticulous reconstruction of these films came from years of pulling together various prints from around the world. Thus, there are some jump cuts, and the film stock may vary from scene to scene. but it’s not like you’re watching old home movies. The preservationists have done an impeccable job of presenting the films as close as possible to what you would’ve seen in a theater back in the ’20s. Also, composer Robert Israel was commissioned to create new music for both films; the scores are quite effective in setting the mood and capturing the inner sadness of the main characters in each film.
J’accuse and La Roue are preceded by a 1968 documentary chronicling Gance’s storied career — Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite. Written and directed by Kevin Brownlow (whose book, The Parade’s Gone By, is still the definitive text on silent films), it features clips from all of Gance’s films as well as interviews with the French filmmaker.
To understand modern cinema and to appreciate all of the great accomplishments being done in movies today, we must take the time to look back and study, as well as enjoy, the silent era. It was a marvelous, creative period in which artists experimented and created the language of film. While the name Abel Gance may not be familiar to most contemporary audiences, now is the perfect time to discover his art — and be entertained in the process.