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From Dreyfus to the Donald

By reviving the story of the Dreyfus Affair for a modern audience, Roman Polanski's latest film, An Officer and a Spy, offers a history-spanning study of societies at war with themselves. In Belle Époque France, as in America today, the moral failings of elites laid the foundation for a broader crisis.

NEW YORK – Having fled the country to escape punishment for a statutory-rape conviction in 1977, Franco-Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski remains a pariah in the United States. But that doesn’t mean he can’t offer a good read of the place. His latest film, An Officer and a Spy, masterfully captures the febrile atmosphere of a country consumed by lies and conspiracies, led by incendiary demagogues, and betrayed by spineless elites who are too afraid to speak up in defense of national values.

This description applies to the US under President Donald Trump as well as it does to the setting of Polanski’s film: France during the Belle Époque period, when the Eiffel Tower was still new and the post-Impressionists dominated the scene. That France, like the US today, was the unquestioned cultural center of the world. But, of course, it also had a dark side.

In the film, Polanski exhumes the sordid story of the Dreyfus Affair, when hysteria and lumpen anti-Semitism consumed France following the 1894 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, an army captain of Jewish descent, on treason charges. In Polanski’s telling, the viewer gets not just a history lesson but also a profound look at the mass psychology of a society that is tearing itself apart.

Polanski takes us through the whole affair – from Dreyfus’s trial, conviction, and imprisonment on Devil’s Island, to his retrial following a public intervention by Émile Zola and a solitary soldier, Colonel Georges Picquart. The film culminates in Dreyfus’s exoneration – somewhat self-serving on the part of a director who has long portrayed himself as the victim of a media witch-hunt. Polanski’s sense of victimhood even seems to have survived last month’s César awards, when a number of French actresses walked out in protest.

But, narcissist or not, Polanski has always had his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, from his earliest films portraying communist Poland to the corruption-riddled Los Angeles of Chinatown, which exposed the decadence of the city’s elite. In both cases, Polanski had been a part of worlds he was depicting (hence the Chinatown villain Noah Cross, an imperious millionaire who once impregnated his own daughter).

In many ways, the Dreyfus Affair was the last violent spasm of the French Revolution. The Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards – the revolutionaries and the reactionaries – were each fighting for their own idea of France and were blind to any other. One side wanted to restore the old order; the other was desperate to fend off counterrevolution and the undoing of all the reforms since 1789.

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The parallels to America in 2020 should be obvious. Trump came to power by inciting hysteria among whites who think their privilege and control of the country are slipping away. And everyone else, from progressive to conservative “Never Trumpers,” is desperate to preserve the rule of law and the institutions of American democracy.

Dreyfus was originally arrested and convicted on charges of selling military secrets to Germany – France’s historical enemy. But because he was a Jew, his guilt was assumed from the start, particularly by most of the French officer corps. To ensure that the charges would stick, various conspirators fabricated evidence against Dreyfus, including a secret file that only the judges who handed down the conviction and prison sentence were allowed to see.

There is another Trump-era parallel here. Picquart could not remain silent after discovering that the key piece of evidence against Dreyfus was a forgery, and his resolve was strengthened when the French General Staff still insisted on Dreyfus’s guilt even when they knew the identity of the real culprit (one Major Ferdinand Esterhazy). Likewise, Colonel Alexander Vindman, the US National Security Council employee who testified about Trump’s abuse of power in the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment, could not look the other way, and stood firm in the face of abuse and threats.

That last point suggests an even more dismaying parallel: an epidemic of elite corruption that makes the broader crisis possible in the first place. In the Dreyfus Affair, a savagely right-wing press fanned the flames of anti-Semitism and intrigue among elites, just as Fox News does today against Trump’s enemies. Owing to these malign efforts, truth itself becomes blurred, and politics assumes an existential character. Hence, when an assassin attempted to kill Dreyfus’s lawyer, Fernand Labori, he fled the scene shouting, “I’ve just killed the Dreyfus,” as if the Dreyfusard cause had become an evil presence in society.

Most depressing of all, though, is the fact that no senior figure in the US has come forward to stand alongside Vindman. There has been no Zola to issue the equivalent of the famous “J’Accuse!” pamphlet, shaming the country’s complicit elites for their lies and corruption. Instead, men like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton have put their personal interests first, remaining mostly silent (perhaps, at least in Bolton’s case, to boost book sales).

Following his philippic against Dreyfus’s tormentors, Zola was driven into exile in London. But he remained hopeful that “some day, France will thank me for having helped to save her honor.” Those senior US figures who have soiled their own honor by serving Trump, betraying institutions like the US military that they proclaim to love, still have time to save their country’s honor. But they must speak up soon.

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