Yesterday was the 120th anniversary of the imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus—a French officer convicted of conducting treasonous communications with the hated Germans—on the infamous Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guinea. The film Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, gave the uninitiated a fair idea of the horrors of that penal colony, although Dreyfus himself was kept in virtual solitary confinement his entire stay there, which still led to his slow physical disintegration.
I read Jean-Denis Bredin’s 1986 narrative The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, which loses nothing in the translation; it is perhaps the most absorbing and exciting read on the subject. This book proves that fact can be more potent than fiction; the villains of the story were numerous and seemingly all-omnipotent: Practically the entire General Staff—still smarting from its defeat at the hands of Bismarck’s Germany in 1871 and still searching for scapegoats—sycophantic subordinates like Major Henry, too eager to please and to fabricate evidence, nationalists willing to sacrifice a mere Jew for the “honor” of country and army, and the anti-Semitic extremists only too eager to exploit Dreyfus to advance their agenda of hate.
But there would have been no “affair” had it not been for those who hated not merely injustice, but the social order that inspired it. At first these consisted of Dreyfus’ family, his Catholic lawyer and a few fellow Jews. But the “ball” in favor of justice began rolling in earnest when a Col. Picquart—head of French military intelligence—received a document that suggested a second traitor dealing with the Germans, a sleazy character perpetually in need of money named Esterhazy. Based upon a suspicion, Picquart discovered that Esterhazy’s handwriting exactly matched that of the document that had convicted Dreyfus.
From that point on, Picquart worked tirelessly at the threat of his own career to prove Dreyfus’ innocence. Nevertheless, this did not occur without the help of chance. After Esterhazy’s acquittal for treason and Emile Zola’s “I Accuse” briefly reinvigoration of the cause before he himself was convicted of libel and exiled, it seemed that Dreyfus’ would remain “guilty.” Yet the “thunderbolt” that one Dreyfusard hoped for fell when the forged document by Henry which was meant to “prove” Dreyfus’s guilt was eventually exposed, and the whole edifice of injustice began its inevitable crumble.
Still, Dreyfus’ “rehabilitation” did not come from a reaction against raging anti-Semitism, but from the course of a war waged between two “movements”—one of reactionary forces consisting of the military, the clergy and “noble” classes clinging to “tradition,” and that supporting a more democratic society in which all were equal before the law without regard to overbearing “tradition.” It was only when the latter came into ascendance was it possible for Dreyfus to be found innocent.
Today, the memory of the Dreyfus Affair still is a matter of embarrassment and self-denial in France. Piers Paul Read, an author of a book on the case, noted in the UK Daily Telegraph that “In 1994, the Director of the Historical Section of the French Army stated that Dreyfus’s innocence was merely ‘a thesis generally admitted by historians’. He was sacked, and Dreyfus’s innocence declared indisputable by his successor. It illustrated, once again, the difficulty of approaching with even-handed detachment this critical event in the history of France.”
Bredin writes in his book of the two states of mind in France: “Such is perhaps the ambiguity of this people of Latin culture, Catholic tradition, apprehensively attached to its customs, its heritage, fanatical, intolerant, resolutely hostile to all that is different, perpetually eager to punish and repress; and also moved to great emothions, quick to be carried away at freedom’s behest, capable of shooting an innocent man one day and of being shot for the sake of innocence the next. An people that could keep Dreyfus in prison, to the amazement of the entire world, when his innocence was certain, and then proclaim his innocence without shame, as though a complete reversal were the natural order of things.”
One thing that I have always found curious is that a story that would certainly make for an exciting epic film has never been. Certainly Steven Spielberg could take on the task. There have been a dozen or so minor efforts, which are listed in the University of Pennsylvania’s Lorraine Beitler Collection, mainly shorts and television productions. There was the 1930 German film, The Dreyfus Case, obviously meant to discomfit the French; this is the only film in which the Internet Movie Data Base lists Alfred Dreyfus as the major character. The 1931 British film of the same title is basically an English translation of that film.
There were the Hollywood versions based on the Life of Emile Zola starring Paul Muni (who specialized in historical characters) and I Accuse starring Jose Ferrer. There was a 1991 British television production Prisoner of Honor largely centered on the heroic exploits of Picquart, starring Richard Dreyfus and directed by Ken Russell, and in 1995 France—on the 100th anniversary of Dreyfus’ imprisonment—a three-hour television film was presented to commemorate it (the French military also took the time to “officially” recognize Dreyfus’ innocence. Yet this production still skirted the worst aspects of the case, that of raging anti-Semitism in France.
Fewer and fewer people are familiar with this landmark historical event, and it deserves a major Hollywood production to revive its memory. Who will do it? Why won’t it be done? To assuage the tender sensitivities of the French?