Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
J´Accuse by Abel Gance, one of the most powerful statements against World War I and against the military’s, politicians’ and society’s shared responsibility for its horrors, was first screened in April 1919. It was based on the film-maker´s own experience of the war as well as of its aftermath: the conflict which devoured around 1,000 soldier lives per day (!) and led to the greatest pandemic in the history of the modern world (the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1919) left him mourning dozens of friends and a whole generation of strangers.
Having got himself re-drafted after being released from military service due to ill health, the French director began filming in August 1918, i.e. before the war ended, and was shooting (sic!) against the background of actual battlefields of Verdun and Saint-Mihiel: the original footage from the latter battle was used in the last scenes of the film.
Gance’s vision of the misery, pain and the horror of war, including the inhumane treatment of the civilians, was based on facts – the romantic plot involving two men loving the same woman worked merely as a thread leading the viewers from one strong anti-war statement to another. And like in the gut-wrenching paintings of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, who both had first-hand experience of this war, Gance created something so powerful and so painfully true that even a century later it is impossible to watch it unflinching and unmoved.
The expressive filming technique, the almost disturbing light effects as well the extremely dynamic cutting turn J´Accuse into a paralyzing series of images. One of the most gripping scenes of the film shows the dead soldiers and civilians rise from their graves and march towards their villages to face those still alive, who cheered the marching troops and rejoiced in the possibility of winning. The 2,000 marching men (with some women among them) were real soldiers on leave from the front at Verdun who had to return into the hell that it was only eight days later. Before Abel Gance could show his film in April 1919 in Paris, 80% of them were dead.
Despite the enthusiastic, although not entirely uncritical, reception in Paris, London and the USA, due to the obviously negative portrayal of the Germans as blood-thirsty warmongers and rapists, J´Accuse was not shown in Germany until many years later. This weekend, the freshly restored original, silent version of the film (Gance made another, a talking one in 1938, on the threshold of WW2) will be shown at the Zeughauskino in Berlin in relation to the European Commemoration Conference taking place on December 15-16 in Berlin. Notmsparker
Zeughauskino: Deutsches Historisches Museum: Unter den Linden 2, 10117 Berlin; Bus 100 / 200 Staatsoper and Tram 12 / M1 Am Kupfergraben; admission: EUR 5; starts at 3pm.
And as always, you can find more past-time tips for the next 7 days in Berlin (including the one above) on the What´s On page of the one and only Slow Travel Berlin.