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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.

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