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1899: The Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus

In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, an unremarkable Captain in the French army found himself hurled into the public gaze when he stood accused of spying for Germany.   The evidence against Dreyfus, a Jew who had left his native Alsace with his family as a boy when the Germans annexed the province in 1871, was shaky to say the least; a cleaning lady discovered papers in the wastebasket of a German military attaché that suggested a French officer was passing confidential military information to the German government.   Dreyfus came under suspicion because he had access to the kind of information that was passed to the Germans - although it was widely believed that his being a Jew played as big a part in the accusations aimed at him.   Army authorities declared that the writing on the discovered papers was similar to Dreyfus's own handwriting and formally charged him with treason.   In a secret court-martial, Dreyfus was refused the right to examine the evidence against him, and was found guilty of all charges, despite his constant protestations of innocence.   Stripped of his rank, Dreyfus was imprisoned for life on Devil's Island.   Political forces had much to do with both the public brouhaha that arose as a result of the case, and its use an example of the failures of the Republic.   Other forces, with even more dubious motives, cited the case as evidence of Jewish treachery.

The case might have ended there had it not been for Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart, an admitted anti-Semite whose sense of justice outweighed his racist leanings.   Picquart became the French army's Chief of Intelligence two years after Dreyfus was sentenced and, after re-examining the evidence, concluded that another officer, a Major named Walsin Esterhazy, was the culprit.   However, when Picquart attempted to re-open the case, he found himself posted to Tunisia, and Esterhazy was swiftly acquitted by a military court.

Once again, Dreyfus's position looked hopeless - until the celebrated novelist Emile Zola published his paper, "J'accuse!" in which he accused the army of staging a cover-up..   Things really took off at this point: Zola, found guilty of libel, fled to England, and wisely stayed there until he received an amnesty; the political right and the Catholic Church denounced the Dreyfus affair as a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons intent on damaging the army and destroying France; bitter divisions within French politics were intensified, and the Republic - still tarnished by cases such as the Boulanger affair, the Wilson case, and the bribery of government officials - looked close to collapse at times.

Another officer then discovered documents forged by a Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert Henry in preparation for any retrial.   The documents appeared to strengthen the evidence against Dreyfus and, immediately after being interrogated, Henry committed suicide.   A retrial was ordered in 1899 and, once again, the hapless Dreyfus was found guilty - this time with extenuating circumstances - and was ordered to be shipped back to Devil's Island.   He never returned, however, because French President Emile Loubet immediately pardoned Dreyfus - although he had to wait until 1906 before being exonerated of all charges and being restored to his former military rank.

L'Affiare Dreyfus (1899)

The entire country was split by the Dreyfus case - making it a prime target for the attention of filmmakers hungry for topics with which they could tempt audiences.   Georges Méliès filmed a series of 11 films - ten of 20 metres in length, and one of 40 metres - in which he appeared as M. Laborie, Dreyfus' defence lawyer.   Dreyfus was played by a local hardware store owner who bore a close resemblance to the accused soldier.   The series of films - which could be shown individually or in sequence (as l'affaire Dreyfus) - depicted Dreyfus' arrest, his imprisonment on Devil's Island, Colonel Henry's suicide, the trials in Rennes, an attempt on M. Laborie's life, journalist's fighting, and Dreyfus leaving for prison after the trial.   Méliès' films made it clear that Dreyfus was framed, (in 1970 critic Georges Sadoul proclaimed the film to be 'the first politically committed film') and the films caused riots at some screenings.   The films, when viewed as one entire film, provide cinema history's first examples of one film being made up of a number of different scenes.   The film itself lasted about ten minutes, and presaged future film development in the manner in which the framing of certain shots mimicked those seen in actuality films, and in the way in which the fighting journalists move close to the camera and then beyond it.   Despite these features becoming common ways of filming such incidents in a film, Méliès failed to develop them further, choosing instead to continue with his stage-like treatment of fantasy and trick films.

Such was the success of Méliès' film that Charles Pathé quickly produced his own version of eight films, also with a pro-Dreyfus slant.   The role of Dreyfus in these films was played by Jean Liezer, from the Ambigue-Comique troupe.   Both films were sold overseas, although Méliès film proved to be the more successful.   The furore in France, however, was so explosive, that the films were banned.   It would be seventy years before the ban would be lifted. [ADD]

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France: 1899



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