Roman Polanski takes on the Dreyfus Affair

Now 86 and still as sharp as ever, Polanski was born to a Jewish father who survived concentration camps and a partly Jewish mother murdered at Auschwitz.

Dreyfus, painted by Jean Baptiste Guth  for Vanity Fair, 1899 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Dreyfus, painted by Jean Baptiste Guth for Vanity Fair, 1899
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Roman Polanski, the French-Polish film director whose personal life has been as dramatic as some of the masterpieces he has produced, has marked a new milestone in his career with the release in Paris on November 13 of his latest film, a lavish screen rendition of the Dreyfus Affair which split France in half at the end of the 19th century.
“J’Accuse” (English-language title: “An Officer and a Spy,” based on a book of that name by Robert Harris) is the 35th film made by Polanski, whose extraordinary career began in Poland in 1955.
Now 86 and still as sharp as ever, Polanski was born to a Jewish father who survived concentration camps and a partly Jewish mother murdered at Auschwitz. He was only 10 years old when he escaped alone from the Krakow ghetto in 1943 to be hidden by local Catholics in the Polish countryside.
The subject of “J’Accuse” (I Accuse) is the case of French-Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who, while serving on the French Army General Staff in 1894, was falsely accused of passing secret information to then-arch enemy Germany.
Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on the notorious Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of South America, where he was held in total isolation from 1895 to 1899, including periods when he was shackled to his bed with leg irons at night by guards forbidden from speaking to him.
In a controversy in which antisemitism played a leading part, France tore itself into two opposing camps for years over his guilt or innocence. He was freed after a re-trial, but complete exoneration came only in 1906. He was then reinstated in the army and made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s national order, in the same compound where he was initially degraded in public.
Asking to be recalled to active duty in 1914 when he was 55, Dreyfus participated as a lieutenant-colonel in World War I. He died in 1935, aged 76.
“Big stories often make great films, and the Dreyfus Affair is an exceptional story,” Polanski said in a statement included in the film’s press kit. “The story of a man unfairly accused is always fascinating, but it is also very much a current issue, given the upsurge in antisemitism.”
The film begins with a reenactment of the degradation ceremony on the huge, open parade ground of the École Militaire, the French Army war college in central Paris where the scene was filmed exactly as it took place there in January 1895.
For many viewers at a press preview of the film, this first scene was like a blow to the solar plexus, as powerful, impressive and as well made as the extraordinary bloody opening scenes of D-Day 1944 in Normandy in the Steven Spielberg classic “Saving Private Ryan.”
The first shot in “J’Accuse” takes in the full width of the École Militaire with possibly close to a thousand soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder at attention in a single rank. Not a sound is heard until in the distance a small party advances toward the middle of the parade ground, their boots crunching on the cobblestones in unison.
The advancing soldiers are members of a guard detail in the middle of which stiffly marches the hapless Dreyfus played by French actor Louis Garrel.
When they reach the center of the grounds, a general on horseback reads Dreyfus’s sentence while the condemned man stands to attention, listening to the order for him to be publicly stripped of his rank.
A helmeted warrant officer then rips Dreyfus’s braid and insignia of rank from his shoulders and uniform, and breaks the officer’s ceremonial sword across his knee.
Finally, unable to withstand the humiliation, Dreyfus suddenly shouts: “Soldiers! An innocent man is being degraded. Long live France! Long live the army!”
In the distance, crowds of civilian onlookers standing behind the spiked gates of the parade grounds shout back: “A mort! A mort” [Death! Death!]. Down with the traitor, down with the Jew!”
Among the onlookers at the real ceremony was Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl, who would later write, “The Dreyfus Affair made me a Zionist.”
An assimilated Jew, Herzl said he was astounded to see the revival and perniciousness of antisemitism in France, the first European country to have granted its Jews full rights, in 1791.
A year later Herzl would publish The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat), in which he wrote that only an independent Jewish state could provide freedom from persecution for Jews. Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, and died in 1904, 44 years before the creation of Israel.
Polanski’s film does not mention Herzl or Zionism. But antisemitism is strongly depicted in the film that does, however, abide by the historical truth, which was that the Jewish aspect of the affair always took back stage to the Left-Right nature of the struggle. This became a reenactment of the French Revolution of a century before, though without the bloodshed.
Windows were broken in some Jewish shops, Jews were socially ostracized (see sidebar on pg. 34-35), but the only fatalities came from a handful of duels between Jewish officers and their antisemitic counterparts. Contrary to popular belief, Dreyfus was far from being the only Jewish officer in the French Army, which at the time counted hundreds of Jewish officers, including five generals.
The anti-clerical Left emerged victorious from the Affair, since the army general staff was completely purged and a strict legal separation was enforced between church and state, which still exists in France.
“At the time there were anti-Dreyfusards but there were also [pro] Dreyfusards!” Polanski wrote in the film’s publicity pack. “And Dreyfus was eventually proved innocent. So France eventually comes out of the affair relatively well, even if the case was only resolved after twelve years and almost plunged the country into civil war.”
The promotion for the film recalls that the father of the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas advised him when young to leave his native Lithuania for France, saying that “a country that can tear itself apart over the honor of a little Jewish captain is one to which a righteous person should hurry to go.”
But the film’s main character is not Dreyfus, nor his best-known defender, writer Émile Zola, who penned “J’Accuse,” a scathing full-page article on page 1 in the L’Aurore newspaper on January 13, 1898, accusing the heads of the army general staff one by one for their individual involvement in Dreyfus’s unfair imprisonment.
Rather, the film’s hero, now largely forgotten by all but historians, is Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart, the man who discovered the true culprit and risked his career, his freedom and his life to make the truth known.
Picquart is played by Jean Dujardin, a highly popular French actor who won the 2012 Oscar for Best Male Actor for his role in the film “The Artist.” Dujardin acts superbly in “J’Accuse,” and his performance will presumably be recognized as such by audiences outside France. In his native country, he is not known for “serious roles” but more for playing lovable but not too intelligent loudmouths and would-be Casanovas.
At age 40 the youngest lieutenant-colonel in the French army, Picquart in 1895 was appointed head of the army’s shadowy “Statistics Section,” the cover name for military counter-intelligence.
It was this department that first “broke” the Dreyfus case, when it intercepted the remains of an anonymous letter found in multiple torn pieces in the wastepaper basket of the military attaché at the German Embassy in Paris.
The French cleaning lady at the embassy would empty into the wide pocket of her apron such scraps of torn paper found in her employers’ office (shredders did not yet exist), and would turn them over to French intelligence rather than burning them in the embassy furnace.
Counter-intelligence officers would then spend hours, if not days, trying to put the documents back together.
The Dreyfus case began when an unsigned handwritten note torn into little shreds of paper turned out to be an offer of information about a new French artillery piece and troop movements in and outside France.
The officer entrusted with investigating the case, Major Armand du Paty de Clam, was a self-styled handwriting expert who also turned out be a dyed-in-the-wool antisemite.
He zoomed in on the names of more than a dozen officers on the general staff who might have had access to such information, and convinced himself – and all others – that the handwriting most resembled that of Captain Dreyfus, the sole Jew among the suspects.
The army general staff wanted to get the messy affair over with quickly, and they zeroed in on Dreyfus, although he had no motives to betray his country. Dreyfus was independently rich through his prosperous manufacturing family, and he was an especially ramrod-straight super-patriot resentful of Germany’s recent annexation of his native province of Alsace.
Soon after Picquart took over his new job, he was amazed to discover that correspondence was continuing between the German military attaché and the true culprit, another French officer, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who turned out to have great need for money since he lived way above his means, richly entertaining what were then called expensive “women of small virtue.”
Picquart took his findings to deputy chief of staff General Charles-Arthur Gonse, whose reaction was: “No! The army does not want another Dreyfus Affair!” Picquart replied, “This is not another Dreyfus Affair. This is the Dreyfus Affair, and Dreyfus is innocent!”
Gonse was adamant that in order to avoid a scandal and embarrassment to the army, the case would not be reopened. “What do you care if this Jew stays on Devil’s Island?” he told Picquart. The latter replied with the once-famous words: “Mon general, what you are suggesting is abominable. I shall not take this secret to my grave!”
What happened next lasted more than a decade, and fills Polanski’s film.
So, is it a good film worth seeing?
Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or as the French say: “To each his bad taste.”
This correspondent’s personal advice is that it is a very good film with spectacular photography…but (except for the opening scene) it is not a Polanski masterpiece on a par with “Cul de Sac,” “Repulsion,” “The Tenant,” “Tess,” “Rosemary’s Baby” or even a comedy like “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”
The fact is, it is difficult to maintain suspense for more than two hours when everyone knows that Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in the end.
Oddly enough, the film ignores the 1906 ceremony when Dreyfus was honored and decorated at the same École Militaire where he had to undergo such a terrible experience 11 years before. Dreyfus, however, asked and was granted that the new ceremony be held in an inner courtyard and not on the parade ground, which he felt would have been too painful for him.
One person who certainly has not answered direct questions from the press about the film is Polanski himself, who keeps newsmen at a huge distance, probably because many would focus on his continuing legal troubles over the charges of allegedly raping a 13-year-old girl in California in 1977. After pleading guilty to part of the charges and serving 43 days in a California prison hospital pending trial, Polanski fled the United States in 1978 but charges are still open there against him.
Less than a week before “J’Accuse” was released in Paris, Valentine Monnier, a former model, accused Polanski of having raped her in 1975 when she was 18. Polanski’s lawyer immediately denied the charge, which, in any case could not be brought to court because it took place too long ago. But feminist groups began an anti-Polanski campaign, which included preventing the film from being shown on two occasions. Media talk shows took up the subject for days but the public flocked to see Polanski’s film in large numbers as soon as it was released.
When “J’Accuse” was presented in August at the Venice International Film Festival – where it won second prize – the presentation was completely overshadowed by controversy as Lucrecia  Martel, president of the jury, said she would not attend the gala premiere because she did not want to congratulate Polanski or offend the victims of sexual abuse.
Polanski was absent, apparently for fear of arrest on a US warrant which has sought his extradition since 1978. In 2009, he was arrested on a similar US warrant in Switzerland, where he had come to attend a tribute to his lifetime achievements. He was under house arrest in the Swiss Alps for months until a local court allowed him to return to France, which he has not left since.
Polanski also caused controversy because the press kit distributed at the Venice festival quoted him as telling French writer Pascal Bruckner: “In the story [of Dreyfus], I sometimes find moments I have experienced myself. I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case... I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me.”
Bruckner, who is a friend of Polanski’s, certainly did not help calm the situation because in his question, he described the filmmaker as a Jew formerly hunted by the Nazis before being persecuted by Stalinists in Communist Poland, and who was now the victim of “present-day neo-feminist McCarthyism…chasing you all over the world and trying to prevent the screening of your films…and getting you expelled from the Oscars Academy.”
All the above statements were dropped from the press kit prepared for the Paris release of the picture.
One person who was shocked by reading such statements was Yael Perl Ruiz, great-granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus.
“I am not at all at ease with Polanski’s attitude when he starts comparing himself with Alfred Dreyfus,” she told The Jerusalem Report. “To compare his case with that of Dreyfus is offensive. I agree that he is a genius, and it is not up to me to judge him on other things in his past, but I do not agree at all that he has a right to compare himself with Captain Dreyfus.”
A recently retired fashion designer, Perl Ruiz is one of the most active defenders of her great-grandfather’s memory.
“My grandmother, who I knew very well since she died in 1981, was Jeanne Dreyfus, the daughter of Alfred Dreyfus and his wife, Lucie. My mother, Simone, knew her grandfather well since she was 18 when he died. My mother was the eldest of Jeanne’s four children, who also included my aunt Madeleine Levy, a Resistance fighter arrested by the Nazis and killed at Auschwitz death camp at age 25,” she said.
Several other members of the Dreyfus family also died in concentration camps. The captain’s great-nephew, Jean-Pierre Reinach, died particularly tragically. An officer in General de Gaulle’s Free French forces, he parachuted into Occupied France on a clandestine mission in 1942. But he was killed when the British aircraft dropping him flew too low, and his parachute did not have time to deploy properly.
Captain Dreyfus and his wife also had a son, Pierre, who fought as a captain in World War I and who was killed in a civilian plane crash in 1946.
Perl Ruiz was one of the main organizers of an exhibit and symposium about Captain Dreyfus held at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv in 2014, and again a main promoter of the erection of a statue of Dreyfus near Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv last year.
“I’ve remained very close to Israel ever since I came as a volunteer for 18 months at Mishmar Hayarden around 1970,” she said. “I’ve also twice come back as a volunteer with Sar-El, the civilian program that supports Tzahal.”
As for her grandfather, she asked rhetorically: “Does the name Dreyfus still ring a bell in France? It depends for whom. But the Dreyfus Affair is taught in all French schools, and most of the French do know about it. They know he was innocent.”
Turning to present-day politics, Perl Ruiz said, “Today, antisemitism in France is the work of Islamic extremists, not of the ultra-right as in the past. This radical Islam stands for the destruction of all Jews and cannot be compared with the Dreyfus Affair.
“I cannot imagine another Dreyfus Affair in France today. The French are not antisemitic though, of course, there are some antisemites. But the government is certainly not antisemitic. Alas, elsewhere in Europe there is a frightening return of the extreme-right coming to power in several countries with ideas that are not peaceful and which are rather antisemitic.
Would Captain Dreyfus have been a Zionist?
“It’s difficult to say because people did not see things in the same manner during his lifetime. I’m pretty certain he would not have moved to Israel, but perhaps, had he still been alive during the Shoah, he might have seen things differently. What is pretty certain is that at the time of Israel’s creation, he would have been very proud of the Israeli Army. What is certain is that he was extremely patriotic and extremely French.”
‘Let’s just hope he’s not a Jew’
The following text was written in French in the late 1960s by Jacques Edinger (1910-1973), a veteran French-Jewish journalist and father of The Report’s present-day Paris correspondent, Bernard Edinger. It recounts the lives of Ernest and Jeanne Sriber, Jacques Edinger’s maternal grandparents, in the provincial town of Saint-Dié, eastern France, and how they were directly affected by the Dreyfus Affair:
When he opened the newspaper in Saint-Dié on November 1, 1894, my grandfather Ernest read the following short item aloud to my grandmother: “A case of treason: serious presumptions have resulted in the arrest of a French officer suspected of divulging to foreign powers documents of interest to our national defense.”
My grandmother had this astonishing reaction: “Let’s just hope he’s not a Jew.”
“The Affair” (the Dreyfus case) was about to make my grandparent’s lives in this French provincial town so miserable that several years later, in 1901, they would move to Paris, giving up their business activities (“les affaires” in French) because of “L’Affaire.”
Business had until then been prosperous, with my grandfather traveling six months a year to sell to retail stores across eastern France the cloth which he purchased from factories in Mulhouse and Troyes.
His brother Charles handled the administration of the business in Saint-Dié together with an associate named Landau.
My grandfather Ernest was a ramrod straight native of Alsace, somewhat stiff and who one could not imagine cracking jokes.
He had all the qualities which made an honorable and prosperous bourgeois: he was scrupulously honest, worked as hard as he saved, and had an immense attachment to France, which he demonstrated by leaving his home province of Alsace to remain French when it was annexed to Germany in 1871.
He had little imagination, indulged in no fantasies, but had a sense of duty toward his family, toward his profession and toward the money that he earned by working hard and which he did not waste.
Of his travels, I only heard him draw one lesson: one should never use tooth mugs in hotels.
In those days, toilets were rare in individual hotel rooms, and travelers used tooth mugs for reasons that had nothing to do with brushing their teeth!
During the six months of the year that he spent in Saint-Dié, he examined his account books, played cards, went to pick up his children at school, and squabbled with his brother who was as honest and as careful with money as he was.
My grandfather came to Saint-Dié, on the French side of the Vosges mountains, from adjacent annexed Alsace, age 18, together with his brother who was two years older than he.
They came from Schlestadt, where they were born, close to Strasbourg where their father was born in 1808, and to Hattstadt, where their grandfather was born in 1774.
When it was time to marry, my grandfather went to Paris where he was ceremoniously introduced in 1882 to my grandmother Jeanne (née Lévy) who was 19. She knew nothing of life in the provinces, and believed that in Saint-Dié she would find a farm, cows and would play being a farmer’s wife dressed in a pretty pink and white apron.
She was disappointed to find a town with paved streets which theater troupes only visited once a year, whereas she adored the theater and attended all the new plays shown at the Comédie-Française in Paris.
When she would walk out of their home in Saint-Dié, slightly lifting her long skirts so as not to muddy them, people would peer from behind curtains at “the Parisian woman.” Behind her curtain, Anna, the wife of Charles, would also peer with hostility. My grandmother was a good-looking woman and her sister-in-law was plain looking. Nonetheless, the two couples got along because they had no choice. They would judge and criticize each other, but they would also back one another in this town where they were newcomers and outsiders.
In 1884, my aunt Marthe was born, in 1887, my mother Alice, and in 1890 my uncle René.
My grandmother was an untiring woman, intelligent and with surprising energy. She wanted to help those less fortunate than her, and she sought a secular charity (ed. note: the town’s Jewish population was too small to have any organized Jewish groups and the Sribers were not particularly observant) where she could meet women of a social level equivalent to her own.
The Red Cross and its women’s organizations fit the bill perfectly, and my grandmother devoted much time and effort to them until 1894.
Then came the Dreyfus Affair, and my grandparents’ acceptance into Saint-Dié society was suddenly stopped, and then slipped backward. They were excluded, ostracized, and everyone who counted began to avoid them, including my grandmother’s circle of Red Cross ladies. She was even asked to resign from the Red Cross women’s league. She refused, but no longer attended their meetings.
There were then four or five other Jewish families in Saint-Dié, but none on the same social level of my family. The Weilers were butchers, and Mademoiselle Dennery was a piano tutor to my mother and her siblings. After each lesson, she was paid, given a glass of a syrupy orange drink, but that was the limit of our relations with her.
During the Dreyfus Affair there were times when my grandparents could not send my uncle Réné to school because his classmates would beat him in the schoolyard. When they came home afterward, they were probably congratulated for defending France by beating an eight-year-old whose father had chosen exile to remain French.
The worse was for the girls who grew up without friends and – oh, supreme preoccupation! – no hopes of ever finding a husband in Saint-Dié.
My grandmother began to press for the family’s move to Paris where she could once again find the Comédie-Française and a city that was not stifling for them. My grandfather was less enthusiastic, but how could they stay in Saint-Dié where people with manners pretended not to see them on the street, and those without manners would spit on the ground when they passed by.
In the end, the only people they could frequent were Charles, his wife and their young son Georges, who was also being beaten up at elementary school as a “dirty Jew.” Second-Lieutenant Georges Sriber, then an infantry platoon leader, would be killed in action in the Vosges Mountains on September 25, 1915, age 25. He was posthumously awarded the Legion of Honor. His grave carries the official mention “Mort pour la France” – Died for France.
(Three decades or so later…….)
I met him (Alfred Dreyfus) around 1930 – the man who completely changed the destiny of my family and that of many others. I saw a distinguished old man of small physical size, entirely bald, short-sighted, and with a large, hooked nose that was the delight of antisemites.
It was at an elegant Jewish wedding reception, where he did not look out of place among these bourgeois gentlemen who had spent their lives behind the counters of their businesses while he had experienced such a terrible life.
There was something of an absence in his faraway look, something of a fleeting smile on his face. Perhaps he remembered prison or Devil’s Island or his trial. Or perhaps he simply had the timid and absent-minded look of former students of the Ecole Polytechnique (an elite school for engineers and artillery officers of which Alfred Dreyfus was a graduate) who have found a refuge in mathematics and wished they never left that world.
From Jacques Edinger’s unpublished manuscript, “Memoirs from before I was born, and until I was eight years old.”
Added note from his son, The Report’s Bernard Edinger: My great grandparents, Ernest and Jeanne Sriber, are buried in the Jewish section of Paris’ Montparnasse cemetery less than 100 yards from the grave of Alfred Dreyfus.