Alfred Dreyfus is being erased all over again

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

In London to promote a book, I received an invitation to a secret screening of An Officer and a Spy, Roman Polanski’s new film about the Dreyfus affair. I boarded public transportation to a clandestine destination, somewhere in England, to view what recalled for me the samizdat literature once produced in Communist eastern Europe. I looked over my shoulder several times to see if anyone was watching me; if the possibility of exposure wasn’t real, my anxiety certainly was. My emotional reflexes still echo the trip I took to Prague in 1983 to meet dissident writers during which I was followed. But why all the cloak-and-dagger dramatics now? Why can’t I reveal where I went?

An Officer and a Spy is untouchable in the Anglo-Saxon world. For now it seems quite likely that the movie will not be shown in the United Kingdom, either in movie theatres or on television. Nor will it illuminate screens in the United States. Polanski, in the parlance of Twitter culture, has been ‘cancelled’ because of his confessed sex crime against a 13-year-old American girl in 1977. More recently, a French photographer has accused the Polish-Jewish director of raping her in 1975, a charge Polanski denies. So dangerous is the potential backlash of collaborating with Polanski that no British or American distributor will risk showing the movie, which opened to great acclaim and box-office success in France, though some protests have occurred there too. No one, including my hosts, wants to be stoned on Twitter or picketed in their place of business.

In the darkened screening room, I got to sample the contraband. I know the Dreyfus story well, especially from Robert Harris’s historically accurate novel on which the film is based. I wondered how Polanski could improve on Harris’s excellent work, though I realise that novels and films are different species of storytelling. From the breathtaking opening scene, in which the uniformed Captain Alfred Dreyfus is publicly stripped of his epaulettes, buttons and gold braid — then his sword is snapped in two — you know that a talented director can do certain things with actors and a camera that we scriveners can’t achieve in words.

Dreyfus’s fraudulent conviction for espionage; his cruel incarceration on Devil’s Island; the malignant anti-Semitism that motivated the French military and political establishment; the courageous counterattack by Émile Zola and Georges Clemenceau — these plot elements are all well told. But what’s most impressive in Polanski’s film is Jean Dujardin’s brilliant portrayal of Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart, who risked his life and career to exonerate Dreyfus and identify the real spy in the French army. This is no ordinary movie with a Hollywood ending: the last scene brings no redeeming catharsis for the audience or for France. But as I watched, the present-day irony of the situation began to dawn on me.

The real-life Dreyfus, a scapegoated Jew, was literally erased: the military sent him to Devil’s Island to torture him, and also to make him disappear from French consciousness: he was used as a proxy to avoid confronting corruption at the heart of the general staff. Now the movie Dreyfus is being erased in countries that sorely need to relearn the malign consequences of religious bigotry, groupthink and censorship. The effective banning — what else can we call it? — of An Officer and a Spy cries out for an Émile Zola to denounce it. British readers should remember that when Zola was convicted of libel by a French court for his famous essay ‘J’Accuse!’, he fled to safety in liberal England, where he spent a year in exile.

I know what Twitter and #MeToo will say: ‘You can hop the Eurostar to Paris if you really want to see the film, we’re also punishing Polanski the sex criminal, and this has nothing to do with Dreyfus. At long last, justice is being done in the name of anonymous women the world over, victimised by male predators, who will never have a Zola to champion them. In a revolution heads must roll, and the guillotine cannot always discriminate between the truly guilty and the somewhat innocent.’

So why not boycott or picket performances of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest? Wilde committed sexual abuse against underage boys, and I hear no cries for his ‘cancellation’. We at Harper’s Magazine have published two pieces by a convicted murderer, and about this I’ve heard not a peep of moral consternation. I condemn Polanski’s conduct, including his cowardly flight from US jurisdiction, just as I would have condemned Norman Mailer for stabbing one of his wives. But prevent their work from being read and seen? Is there a statute of limitations on these kinds of crimes, or does the mob decide who stays and who goes whenever it pleases?

My new book is about Graham Greene, a wonderful British writer and film critic for this magazine who stood up for the underdog and for the principle of freedom of expression. In 1982, he wrote his own version of ‘J’Accuse!’ in defence of his mistress’s daughter. Greene would have been sardonically condescending about the criticisms of Polanski in the United States: he would have viewed them as typical of Americans’ phony innocence. About his own country’s silence, I think he would have been disgusted.

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