Roman Polanski yesterday announced that he is preparing to direct a film about the Dreyfus Affair, which scandalously exposed the extent of anti-Semitic corruption in French political and high-ranking military circles in the 1890s and early 1900s. According to Deadline, Polanski will direct a screenplay written by Robert Harris, with whom he collaborated on 2010’s “The Ghost Writer.” Robert Benmussa and Alain Sarde, Polanski’s long-time producers, will finance the movie independently and shooting will start toward the end of the year in Paris.
It will not be a biopic of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Alsatian-Jewish artillery office who was wrongfully convicted in November 1894 of giving French military secrets to the German embassy in Paris and endured nearly five years at the penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Nor is it expected to take the route of William Dieterle’s “The Life of Emile Zola,” which depicted the novelist’s role in the crisis and won the 1937 Best Picture Oscar. In January 1898, Zola published a letter, famously headlined “J’accuse,” in the newspaper L’Aurore, that accused President Félix Faure’s Republican government of anti-Semitism and unlawfully imprisoning Dreyfus.
Polanski will approach the film as an espionage thriller. “I have long wanted to make a film about the Dreyfus Affair, treating it not as a costume drama but as a spy story,” he said. “In this way one can show its absolute relevance to what is happening in today’s world – the age-old spectacle of the witch-hunt of a minority group, security paranoia, secret military tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, governmental cover-ups, and a rabid press.”
In August 1896, Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart, the chief of French military intelligence, disclosed that Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy had passed on the military secrets to Germany. But French army brass suppressed the evidence against Esterhazy, who was acquitted on the second day of his trial. Dreyfus was convicted again in 1899 but was pardoned and released, going on to serve France throughout World War I. Zola had meanwhile been found of guilty of libel in 1898 and was forced to go into temporary exile in Britain. His death from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902 may have been a political assassination.
Dreyfus’s barbaric conviction and imprisonment were an early sign of the coming cataclysm in Europe. “The Dreyfus Affair ... is the culmination of the anti-Semitism which grew out of the special conditions of the nation state,” Hannah Arendt wrote in 1951. “Its violent form foreshadowed future developments, so that the main actors of the Affair sometimes seemed to be staging a huge dress rehearsal for a performance that had to be put off for more than three decades.”
In November 1943, Madeleine Dreyfus Lévy, the daughter of Dreyfus’s daughter Jeanne and a social worker who had joined the French Resistance, was arrested on a curfew violation in Toulouse and sent on Convoy 62, with 83 children, to Auschwitz. She worked on an excavation near Birkenau and, apparently weighing less than seventy pounds, died there of typhus in January 1944. In France, a collaborationist tract had vilified her as a “Jewess who dared not speak her name.”
Her fate must have special resonance for Polanski, whose experiences as a child in the Kraków Ghetto were a catalogue of anti-Semitic brutality. His half-Jewish mother was murdered at Auschwitz. His half-sister, Annette, survived the camp, as his Jewish father survived internment at the Matthausen-Gusen camp in Austria.
No doubt dubious comparisons will be made when the movie “D” comes out between Dreyfus’s exile from France and Polanski’s exile from America, the result of the statutory rape charges brought against him in 1977. It will be curious to see how Polanski handles Dreyfus’s ordeal.
Without excusing Polanski’s culpability, it can’t be overemphasized that Dreyfus was the victim of an injustice that would expand into an unparalleled crime against humanity. Even more so than “The Pianist,” his Dreyfus film could potentially be his own “J’accuse.”