David A. Bell
Think of famous victims of injustice in modern history: Thomas More, Galileo, Jean Calas, Alfred Dreyfus, Roman Polanski. Roman Polanski? Needless to say, the Polish-born director, who fled the United States in 1978 after being indicted for the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl, does not belong in the company of these other victims. But he thinks he does. Press materials circulated for his film An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus Affair, included an interview in which Polanski explicitly compared himself to Dreyfus, the French Jewish army officer unjustly convicted in 1895 of spying for Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. The sympathetic interviewer attributed the director’s travails to “neo-feminist McCarthyism.”
In principle, it is a good thing to distinguish the artist from the art, and to refrain from condemning the latter simply because of the former’s conduct or opinions. Without such a distinction, we might have to cancel a large portion of the world’s great art and literature. But the artists themselves sometimes make the distinction too difficult to sustain. Ezra Pound’s hauntingly beautiful “Pisan Cantos” contain nasty anti-Semitic passages, which acquire all the more significance in light of Pound’s pro-Axis propaganda broadcasts during World War II. Rudyard Kipling’s irresistibly readable verse is riddled with casual racism and praise for some of the ugliest aspects of British imperialism. And who can watch Woody Allen’s Manhattan, with its portrayal of a sexual relationship between a middle-aged character based on and played by Allen himself, and a high school girl, and not think of Allen’s own deeply troubling sexual history? An Officer and a Spy might seem to have little to do with Roman Polanski’s past conduct. It is also an expert piece of film making. Suspensefully paced, featuring superb acting (notably Grégory Gadebois as the repulsive Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry), and set in a lush, scrupulously accurate, if somewhat stereotyped recreation of fin-de-siècle France (complete with Can-Can dancers and a déjeuner sur l’herbe), it fully reflects Polanski’s seasoned ability to craft compulsively watchable cinema. But Polanski’s identification with Dreyfus, and his desire to expose what he called, in the interview, an “apparatus of persecution” similar to the one he believes he persecuted him, taints the film.
The problem is not just that Polanski equates Dreyfus’s terrible suffering with his own, far less severe legal experiences (although he has, in his life, known terrible trauma: as a child, he barely survived the Holocaust that took the lives of most of his Polish Jewish family, and in 1969 the Charles Manson gang gruesomely murdered his wife Sharon Tate). Polanski knows perfectly well that much of his past conduct—several other women have also credibly accused him of sexual abuse—will not stand close scrutiny. It is, then, perhaps no coincidence that he made the film in such a way that the character he identifies with has a distinctly secondary role. Captain Alfred Dreyfus also comes off in the film as an unsympathetically stiff, awkward, neurasthenic character (a harsh interpretation, although one with some basis in fact). Instead, Polanski’s hero is the intelligence officer Georges Picquart, whose efforts forced the reopening of the case after Dreyfus had departed to serve his life sentence, leading eventually to Dreyfus’s pardon in 1899 and then his exoneration in 1906. This is not quite Hamlet without the prince. Dreyfus (Louis Garrel) does surface frequently, mostly depicted in moments of mute agony. But Picquart, played ably by Jean Dujardin, appears in nearly every scene.
Polanski did not devise this approach to the Dreyfus Affair on his own. He based the film on the British novelist Robert Harris’s book An Officer and a Spy, which was written in the first person, from Picquart’s perspective. The novel itself had its origin, according to Harris, in a conversation with Polanski. The two men are old friends who collaborated on multiple previous projects and co-wrote the film’s screenplay. Harris has vociferously defended Polanski against the sexual abuse charges, calling him a victim of changing cultural standards. Harris himself is an accomplished historical novelist, with a reputation for doing scrupulous research. He has written on subjects ranging from ancient Rome to an alternative present in which Germany won World War II. The novel An Officer and Spy is a solid piece of historical recreation that hews as closely as possible to the historical record, and is informed by the most important literature on the Dreyfus Affair, including the general history by Denis Bredin, and the colossal Histoire de l’affaire Dreyfus published at the time by Joseph Reinach. But Harris drew particularly on two works by British compatriots, the historian Ruth Harris (no relation) and the novelist Piers Paul Read, who have offered strikingly controversial interpretations of the Affair. Both of them—although Read far more egregiously—present Dreyfus’s supporters as rigid, dogmatic secularists who deserve a significant share of the blame for the way the affair divided France.
Robert Harris himself did not go this far and both the novel and the film include a gripping scene in which Émile Zola and a group of Dreyfus’s supporters debate the most effective way for the affair “to be assembled into a coherent narrative” (an anachronistic phrase for the fin-de-siècle!)—leading to Zola’s great newspaper article “J’accuse!” But Harris still sidelined the Dreyfusards. As a result, the novel ended up casting the Affair less as a massive and complex political battle between defenders of the secular Republic and bigoted reactionaries seeking to undermine it, than as the heroic story of one man taking on a corrupt establishment which had unjustly persecuted an innocent victim. This approach helped Harris devise a dramatic story, but it left readers with a very incomplete view of the Affair and its historical significance. In particular, the novel paid little attention to France’s Jewish community, to the important role played by Dreyfus’s family in forcing a reconsideration of Alfred’s case, or to the way the anti-Dreyfusards unleashed one of the greatest waves of anti-Semitic agitation in European history.
Polanski obviously found this interpretation congenial, and the film follows closely the novel in nearly every particular. After a brief, tautly staged and accurate recreation of Dreyfus’s formal degradation ceremony in the courtyard of the École Militaire in 1895, the action shifts to the bureau of the Army’s General Staff, where senior officers ask Picquart to take over the troubled Service de Renseignement Militaire, which had initiated the investigation of Dreyfus. Polanski, following Harris, takes time to build up Picquart’s character, deliberately accentuating the officer’s questionable traits, the better to underline his later heroic pivot. A series of flashbacks to Dreyfus’s trial, in which Picquart played a minor role, highlight the officer’s casual, conventional anti-Semitism. Other scenes feature his affair with a married woman (well acted by Emmanuelle Seigner) and his readiness to do whatever his commanders want in the service of his career. We then see Picquart, still convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt, trying to root out other spies for Germany, and increasingly focusing on the wayward, perennially indebted army officer Ferdinand Esterhazy. And then comes the dramatic moment, 42 minutes into the two-hour film, in which Picquart realizes that the crucial piece of evidence used to condemn Dreyfus—the famous “bordereau” offering French military secrets to Germany—is actually in Esterhazy’s handwriting.
From here on, An Officer and a Spy follows an arc that will be fairly predictable, even for viewers unfamiliar with the history of the Affair, or with Harris’s novel. Picquart brings his suspicions to his superiors, but instead of encouraging his search for the truth, they try to shut it down. The camera of Polanski’s long-time cinematographer Pawel Edelman dwells insistently on the decrepit or sinister physical features of Dreyfus’s persecutors, including the corpulent, perennially breathless Colonel Henry, and the venal criminologist Alphonse Bertillon, who continues to insist that the bordereau is Dreyfus’s work (Mathieu Amalric gives one of his trademark delightfully creepy performances). Their priority is protecting the honor of the army, and in any case, Dreyfus is a Jew, hardly worth any consideration, and eminently worth sacrificing. Picquart, the libertine careerist, at this point discovers that he cannot betray his conscience and insists on digging deeper. The harder he digs, the more pressure the army puts on him to stop. When it turns out that a secret dossier adduced as key evidence against Dreyfus in fact contains no indications of treason on his part, Picquart’s subordinate and rival Henry even forges a new incriminating document (after the forgery is exposed, Henry commits suicide). Picquart finds his career, and then even his life in danger. But he valiantly persists, and ultimately prevails. A new trial for Dreyfus is ordered, and while it ends, scandalously, in a second conviction, the enormous protests that follow eventually lead the President of the Republic to issue a pardon in 1899. Ultimately, in 1906, a military commission exonerates Dreyfus entirely. The film ends with a final meeting between Picquart—who has now become Minister of War—and Dreyfus, awkward as ever, who has come to request promotion to the rank he would have attained if not for his imprisonment. Picquart turns him down—his loyalty is once again to the army, and he cannot violate its sacrosanct promotion rules. But he apologizes to Dreyfus for his own role in the initial investigation and trial and says that he would never have risen to his new position if not for Dreyfus. “No, General,” Dreyfus corrects him. “It is because you did your duty.”
It is worth noting that An Officer and a Spy clearly borrows from and plays homage to one of the twentieth century’s great political film-makers, Costa-Gavras (Konstantinos Gavras), who has also defended Polanski against the rape allegations. Z (1969) and Special Section (1975), like An Officer and a Spy, both center on legal proceedings in which a lone figure of conscience struggles to do his duty in the face of a corrupt establishment: in one case, the Greek police trying to cover up its involvement in the assassination of a prominent left-wing politician, in the other, the Vichy French authorities bending to Nazi pressure to execute prisoners in retaliation for a Resistance attack. Both are based closely on real events, and Special Section is a meticulous piece of historical recreation. Both feature taut, spare, suspenseful pacing. Most important, in both cases the hero is, like Picquart in An Officer and a Spy, a conservative careerist whose conscience and sense of duty unexpectedly drive him to defy the institutions he had hitherto faithfully served. Between its unsparing depiction of official French pusillanimity, and the choice of making its hero a member of the Action Française, Special Section had a highly mixed reception in France, was never re-released, and remained inaccessible for decades. At the conclusion of Z, a journalist asks a general arrested for his role in the assassination plot if he feels like a new Dreyfus. He snarls back: “Dreyfus was guilty!”
Yet Costa-Gavras, in these two classic films, never let the larger political stakes of the drama fade from sight (the same is true of his 1982 American debut Missing, in which a conservative American businessman discovers the truth about the Pinochet regime in Chile that had murdered his son). Polanski does not do the same. Viewers not already familiar with the history will come away from An Officer and a Spy with little sense of the Dreyfus Affair’s historical importance—the way it foreshadowed the darkest chapters of twentieth-century history even as it marked the desperately narrow victory of France’s liberal republic over the forces of reaction. They will most likely come away seeing it simply as a conventional, suspenseful costume drama about the way an unjust system can inflict grievous harm on a flawed but innocent victim unfairly charged with a terrible crime. All of which will suit Roman Polanski just fine, as he continues his own struggle for exoneration. The film did not find an American distributor, and is not currently available on American streaming services, although DVDs can be ordered from France. But think twice before sending in money that could end up as part of a Roman Polanski defense fund.
Roman Polanski, Director, An Officer and a Spy [J’Accuse], 2019, France, Italy, 132 min, color, Légende Films, R.P. Productions
- Roman Polanski attacks ‘absurd’ abuse accusations on eve of Venice premiere | Venice film festival 2019 | The Guardian
- Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 425.
- Robert Harris says he won’t change position on Roman Polanski ‘because the fashion has changed’ | The Independent | The Independent
- Jean-Denis Bredin, L’affaire (Paris: Julliard, 1983); Joseph Reinach, Histoire de l’Affaire Dreyfus, 7 vols. (Paris: Éditions de la Revue blanche, 1901-11).
- Ruth Harris, Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010); Piers Paul Read, The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two (London: Bloomsbury, 2012). See my review of the Read, “The Dreyfus Affair Told From the Catholic Point of View,” The Guardian, February 16. 2012, The Dreyfus Affair by Piers Paul Read – review | Books | The Guardian
- Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy, p. 320.
- On Dreyfus’s family, see Michael Burns, Dreyfus: A Family Affair, 1789-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991). On the Affair and anti-Semitism, see Pierre Birnbaum, The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
- Polanski : “Y’a pas de viol”, dit Costa-Gavras (europe1.fr)