L’affaire Dreyfus (1899)

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*. It’s startling to note — at least I find it startling — that this is not a historical docudrama (films that went by the genre label actualitiés reconstituées). In 1899 the Dreyfus Affair was very much a still ongoing political scandal in France, and indeed at the time this film (or series of films) was made Dreyfus’s second court martial had yet to conclude. It’s really a dramatic newsreel of current events.
*. This is significant because much of what we see would be impossible to understand without some knowledge of the events being illustrated. For a modern audience this is even more the case. In the first episode, for example, it helps to know that Dreyfus is being offered a pistol so that he can honourably shoot himself, and that he rejects this. In Henry’s suicide scene we aren’t told what he’s writing, which was a note that included a confession. The reason Dreyfus is being shackled to his bed is because his jailors were afraid an attempt was going to be made to rescue him. Knowing this background helps.
*. As a sign of the temper of the times the film was banned in France, making it one of the first films (if not the first) to suffer political censorship. But if you look at it objectively, what was found offensive? We know that Méliès was a Dreyfusard, but how much of this could you tell just from watching these brief clips, which are presented without any editorializing aside from the labeling of the title cards?
*. That Henry killed himself in prison was accepted as a fact even by the anti-Dreyfusards, who made him out to be a martyr. Nobody denies an assassin tried to kill Dreyfus’s lawyer Labori (here played by Méliès himself). Dreyfus is presented sympathetically in the prison scene where he is shackled in leg irons to his bed and in the passage where he is reunited with his wife, but there is nothing said about his actual guilt or innocence.
*. Zola’s famous broadside J’accuse had been far more polemical, and this before much of the political (if not public) tide had turned for Dreyfus. Zola wrote, for example, before Henry’s forgeries had been established.
*. All of which is to say that though this is a timely movie about the Dreyfus affair, made by a Dreyfusard, it does not clearly take sides. It is not propaganda. That it was seen as propaganda, and treated as such by the authorities it made nervous, says something about their sensitivities to the power of the new medium.
*. It’s a serial, originally consisting of eleven single-shot scenes, each around a minute in length. Two of the scenes (2 and 11) are thought to exist in French archives but haven’t surfaced. The episodes were sold and often shown separately, but were sometimes presented together on the same program. This is simply a function of the limitations film had at the time, and I think it should be considered a single work.
*. Some attempt at historical accuracy has been made. I was particularly struck by how closely the palisade on Devil’s Island resembled photographs of the real location. Though Dreyfus’s hut looks a bit roomier, and cleaner, than it really was.
*. Of course when we think of Méliès today we think mainly of his special-effects fantasies like A Trip to the Moon. These movies used trickery and elaborate set dressing to conceal his very limited development of film’s potential (no editing, no camera movement). I find it interesting that in a film this early, however, Méliès was experimenting a bit, trying to expand on what he could do. Two shots try to work outside the frame, literally. In the Labori sequence we see Labori and his two friends appear out of the foreground, walking away from us. And in the riot episode the brawling journalists are chased toward the camera by the police (who are only revealed as the cause of the stampede when the room clears). For 1899 this was pretty progressive filmmaking. But ultimately it was a direction Méliès didn’t want to go in, opting for ever more elaborate, static, theatrical effects.

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