In January 1895, a French artillery officer, General Staff member Alfred Dreyfus (Louis Garrel), a Jew by nationality, was convicted of spying for Germany. Prior to this, a military intelligence officer, Major Hubert Henri, submitted to the War Office a paper without a number and a signature, which informed the addressee that secret military documents had been sent to him, found in the discarded documents of the German military agent, Colonel Schwarzkoppen. Colonel Fabre and an expert from the War Office recognized the handwriting of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
Dreyfus was subjected to a demonstrative civil execution before the formation: insignia were torn off his uniform, his sword was broken in two.
The civil execution ceremony is attended by Colonel Georges Picard (Jean Dujardin), former Dreyfus teacher at the Higher Military School. Georges examines the procedure through binoculars, and when the other officers ask him how Dreyfus is holding up, Picard replies, “Like a Jewish tailor who has lost his purse of gold.”
Dreyfus was imprisoned in a stone hut on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, and Picard was promoted to head of military intelligence. However, such a high-profile name hides a rather wretched building with an ever-sleeping watchman, whose employees are engaged in reading letters and gluing together scraps of documents obtained from the basket of the German embassy.
Picard’s deputy in military intelligence is the same Major Hubert Henri (Gregory Gadebois), after the presentation of the secret document, the Dreyfus affair began. Also in the building are lieutenants Lot and Griblen, who are related to the collection of evidence of Dreyfus’s guilt.
After some time, employees of the institution entrusted to Picard discover a letter from infantry major Ferdinand Esterhazy, who, apparently, is transmitting information to the Germans. Picard began to study these documents and found out that Esterhazy’s handwriting coincided with the handwriting in the very paper on which Dreyfus was convicted. Also, Picard in the Dreyfus case discovered several outright forgeries made by his subordinates, and he comes to the conclusion that Dreyfus is innocent.
He comes with this information to his immediate superiors, General Gonza (Herve Pierre), the head of the intelligence service. However, Gonza absolutely does not need a new Dreyfus case, and he angrily demands that Picard forget about all this.
This whole story with the Dreyfus case had the widest public resonance, and not only in France, and it led to a serious split both in French society and in the societies of some other European countries.
Hundreds of articles and books have been written about this case, several films (both documentaries and feature films) have been made about it.
Director Roman Polanski has been interested in making a film about this case for a very long time. A few years ago, a friend of the director, British writer Robert Harris, wrote a book about the Dreyfus affair called “An Officer and a Spy.” Harris told this story by making the central figure of Colonel Georges Picard, with whom, of course, an interesting incident turned out: Picard, like most of the military of that time, was an anti-Semite and he did not digest Alfred Dreyfus (it must be said that Dreyfus himself contributed, because, as contemporaries said, he had a very tough and unfriendly character; however, this may have been due to his special position – the only Jew in the General Staff in openly anti-Semitic times).
At the same time, Picard was very fond of the army, he was a real servant, but it turned out that because of Dreyfus he went against his own superiors, while not having any warm feelings for Dreyfus. But he did his own investigation, made sure that an innocent person was convicted, and the guilty one was walking free, and Picard simply could not leave this situation as it was.
The task before the director was very difficult. Everything has been known about the “Dreyfus Affair” for a long time, it is very difficult to achieve some kind of intrigue in the story of this story. It is also very difficult to show in one film how much this case then split the society, while serious passions were in full swing.
By the way, the original title of the painting is “J’accuse”, that is, “I accuse”: this is the title of an article by Emile Zola, published in the daily newspaper Auror on January 13, 1898, which produced the effect of a bombshell. The article was addressed to French President Félix Faure, and in it Zola accused the French government and military of anti-Semitism, bias, and of condemning an innocent person.
It was after this article that a split occurred in French society, which was divided into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. And this article launched the process of reviewing the Dreyfus case, although he was found not guilty only on July 12, 1906, eight years later.
For some reason, many reviewers of the title “I Accuse” are trying to draw by the ears to accusations against Polanski himself: as you know, the director in 1977 was accused in the United States of raping a 13-year-old girl whom he had previously drunk with champagne with the drug methaqualone, before the verdict, the director fled the country and never returned to the United States: Polanski lived mainly in France, also in Switzerland and Poland.
I don’t understand point-blank how the Dreyfus case can be brought to Polanski, because no one doubts Polanski’s guilt, especially since he himself admitted it (when he tried to reach an agreement with the American prosecutor’s office). And that he was accused of this crime all his life – well, for the cause, he is by no means an innocent victim, unlike Dreyfus.
However, back to the picture. This is a historical reconstruction, and a detective-investigation, and a court drama, and even a love story (Georges is in a love affair with a married lady Pauline Moner, played by Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner). All this is staged very thoroughly, with great attention to detail: the re-creation of the situation in France at the end of the 19th century is simply amazing, and this applies to the work of decorators, and to the work of costume designers, and to camera work. Some shots from the film are simply animated paintings by French artists of those times: Manet, Courbet and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Some viewers complain that the action in the picture unfolds very slowly and watching Picard plunge into this story is not very interesting. However, as for me, it is this slowness that just benefits the fact that during this time you can have time to appreciate all the details and immerse yourself in the appropriate era.
Polanski in the film does not try to somehow manipulate the audience, he shows everything as it is. Dreyfus, in the few episodes in which he appears, looks like a rather unpleasant person, although, of course, he arouses deep sympathy as a person who has suffered completely innocently.
Picard also does not hide his attitude towards Dreyfus and in general to all this Jewish shoble-yobla, but, as I wrote above, he is not fighting for Dreyfus, but against injustice. And he really suffered for it seriously, which is shown in the film.
There, in general, all these subtleties of relationships within the army are very well shown, where in the name of “honor” they can commit rather heinous crimes: forgery, perjury, and so on. This Jew was given to you, says General Gonze Picard, even if he is really innocent! Can you imagine what a scandal will rise if there is a review of the case? And indeed: let an innocent man sit in prison on a godforsaken island, so long as the army’s “honor” does not suffer. All the more – some Jew.
(By the way, an interesting point. Theodor Herzl, the main ideologue of Zionism, was present at the civil execution of Dreyfus as a newspaper correspondent, and it was then, when he heard the crowd chanting “Death to the Jews!”, Herzl seriously thought about the idea of creating a Jewish state, because he realized that “this music will be eternal”).
Jean Dujardin Picard is excellent. Very restrained, with a minimum of emotions, but the image turned out to be impressive and bright, I really liked this role. And his love story with Pauline Moner, which at first looks like some kind of banal affair, ended up being quite touching, especially in the finale.
I really liked Gregory Gadebois, who played the man who started the whole Dreyfus affair – Hubert Henri. Hubert is also a campaigner, like Picard, but he is a dumb and narrow-minded campaigner. He doesn’t know how to think properly, but he knows how to do what the authorities require – they are loved in the army. In Gadebois, Hubert is a rather dangerous person, just as dangerous is any mediocrity who believes that she is in her right. And it is clearly seen how Hubert does not put a penny on the new boss, although servility is in his blood, because he is afraid that Picard will tear up his deeds with the falsification of evidence in the Dreyfus case. And the scene of Picard’s duel with Henri is still well done: Picard summoned Hubert after he had slandered him in the second trial in the Dreyfus case.
Well made movie, I really enjoyed it. And another reason to remember this story, which caused serious upheavals not only in France, but throughout Europe, and a superbly recreated era, and excellent acting. From Polanski, I did not expect a weak film, but here he really exceeded expectations.
PS Some photos.
Alfred Dreyfus (in French, of course, his last name is pronounced Dreyfus).
And this is the actor Louis Garrel, who played Dreyfus.
Well, a caricature of those times. Family dinner. The inscription “Let’s not talk about Dreyfus.” Below the inscription “Still talked.”
An Officer and a Spy movie meaning / J’accuse
Director: Roman Polanski Cast: Jean Dujardin, Louis Garrel, Emmanuelle Seigner, Gregory Gadebois, Herve Pierre, Vladimir Iordanov, Didier Sandre, Melville Poupot, Eric Ruf, Mathieu Amalric
Drama, France-Italy, 2019, 132 min.