An Officer and a Spy
The movie is directed by Roman Polanski, a french director who has been evading American justice for close to 50 years now, on the charge(though apparently the charge-sheet was never filed, but the arrest-warrant is still valid) of raping a minor. His movies are no longer released in the US, and are not carried on streaming platforms, and even the French public has been disowning him. He is a Jew, and so he has pretensions of being wrongly persecuted, which he, at times, brings out in this movie. Also, Margot Robbie plays his wife in “Once upon a time in Hollywood ‘’. Despite all this, I sought out this film, for reasons that serve as only a flimsy excuse, at best. But here I am, anyway.
The Dreyfus Affair
“It’s like the Miser losing all of his gold”, said the eventual hero of the film, seeing the Jew being stripped of his decorations. Later he describes the court martial as getting rid of a pestilence, which is a view shared by much of the military establishment, orthodox as they are. It is the same group who would go on to suffer the humiliation of Vichy and hand over their countrymen to fascists, rather than live up to the ideals of 1789. But I am getting ahead of myself.
First things first: In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an intelligence officer in the French Army is convicted of conspiring with the Germans, and sent to solitary imprisonment on the Devil’s island, where the guards delight themselves in serving him morsels of rotted pork, hidden in his meal. Colonel George Picquard, played by Jean Dujardan(from The Artist) attends the public humiliation, and is subsequently appointed the head of the department that provided the incriminating evidence. The previous chief was losing his eyesight, among other things.
He finds the office full of idlers and clerks joking about the Jew’s misery, and meets his chief aid, Major Armand, a stocky and steadfast man, in line with the orthodoxy. Armand mentions in passing: “The Romans crucified a Christian; we, a Jew. That’s progress”. I am not giving a full review of the film, so let me fast-ish forward to the scene I have stuck in my head. Picquard slowly finds out that the evidence against Dreyfus is flimsy at best, and that he had been set up by some in their ignorance, and by some in trying to cover their own tails. Despite strict orders, he gets the case reopened, with the help of intellectuals(the word finds its origin here) who are rallied by Emile Zola with a rousing open letter denouncing the military and political brass(it was called “J’accuse”).
In the civil court, the military lawyer argues that while all the evidence presented so far may be false, the army had secret proof of his guilt, except for the fact that owing to National Security reasons, it could not be presented in open court, and could not be submitted for review by the defendant. The judge, having the gall of a Gaul, asks whether the chief of staff of the Army would testify to this. The lawyer has no choice but to affirm; that stuff doesn’t happen anymore.
By now, the movie has become highly theatrical. Postures and poses reflect the time appropriately, as if we really are in 1898, with the Lumiere brothers sitting in the court-house, which they might well have done. The drama goes through the roof of the medieval courthouse next day, when the sitting Army Chief is summoned to the hearing, with a rapturous crowd greeting him on the road. Quick cuts, some glances, and a showy salute riles them up further. “Vive La France ‘’ follows from the General’s mustachioed mouth. The thrill is at its climax. It feels like the Catacombs have come alive under the city.
He stands oblique in the courtroom, and when asked directly if definitely incriminating evidence against Dreyfus exists, he lies in open court. The general has to be believed and the case is dismissed. What happens next can best be described thusly: “The stories of the suitors and bachelorettes teach us this, that an apparent victory may in reality be a defeat, and the defeated may yet, long after their apparent failure, triumph”.
Colonel Picquard persists, and finds that the stocky orthodox Major is the one who copied the fake handwriting sample. In his shame, the Major admits to wrongdoing, and kills himself before facing his day in court. The army offers to commute Dreyfus’s sentence, and having rotted in jail for 6 years now, he accepts it. He may have won the entire case itself, but survival was victory enough for him. A very Jewish lesson, and perhaps the director is trying to aim towards this message.
Dreyfus is reinstated in the military in 1906, albeit without proper compensation, retires as a colonel, and dies in the 1930s. His case was crucial in the renewed call to return to the Holy land by a columnist Theodor Herzl, and the French National assembly passed a law on the separation of church and state in view of this trial(in the 20th century), though all that is not part of the film. The picture is about the hatred of a group, not new to the old world and not news today. It is about endless Calvaries, and endless intermissions of the same story in different guises. And lovely camera angles.