"To the average moviegoer, this may seem a rather late date to be dramatizing the details of the Dreyfus Affair, that famous case of military injustice that occurred in France some sixty years ago.”
That military injustice, of course, was that a French officer of Jewish descent was falsely accused of treason in 1894 and was not amnestied for over a decade. Know, too, that those words, penned by a New York Times critic, were referring not to Roman Polanski's upcoming political thriller but of another film on the subject back in 1958.
But the words ring true even today, which is perhaps why Polanski explained that his film will teach a contemporary lesson about “the age-old spectacle of the witch hunt of a minority group, security paranoia, secret military tribunals, out-of-control intelligence agencies, governmental cover-ups and a rabid press.”
In contrast, French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, born Jewish in Lithuania, often highlighted the relative goodness of France compared to its neighbors with this quote from his father: “A country that tears itself apart to defend the honor of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.”
Over a century later, the affair remains hotly debated. Historians continue to churn out new interpretations each year and, like Polanski, argue its modern relevance. That such a scandal could overtake a country considered civilized and good to its Jews—France was the first in Europe to grant them citizenship—eerily foreshadowed the genocidal horrors that would sweep the continent.
At the time, the right reacted in part to what it perceived as an immigrant invasion—Jews from eastern Europe and Germany had come in high numbers in the preceding decades—poisoning a Catholic France, which highlighted the general unease and fear following France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871. That reaction somewhat parallels current anti-Muslim rhetoric in France and other European countries, and to an extent, in the United States. Perhaps the names and references have changed, but those who are fearful still cling to the most irrational of extremes based on ignorance of the perceived “other.” All the while, the affair was notable not only for its anti-Semitic aspect but also because it generally pitted those who were for France as a nation against those who were for a republic. Undertones of this debate, which marked France through the end of the Second World War, can still be felt in the rhetoric of certain extremist parties today.
To contemporary French Jewry, the historical significance lies in the question of seemingly contradictory identities. How could a Jew continue to live in the same country that saw anti-Dreyfusards send one in four of France’s Jews to the death camps under Vichy and their descendants form the Front National party a generation later? Just last month, the FN’s Marine Le Pen, who frequents Nazi balls and plays on fears of minorities, won third place in a bid for the presidency. This bigotry is not confined to the extreme right: A minority on the extreme left has sympathized with the Toulouse killer and tends to oversimplify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Israel as the sole aggressor.
The answer lies in how one chooses to see the glass: half-empty or half-full. The former would lament that an officer in good standing could be scapegoated in this most animalistic of ways. They would bemoan how a meritless debate of his honor, largely based on his Jewish background, could last for 12 years in what was considered one of the most civilized nations of its time, and even go as far as to conclude that to be Jewish meant to never truly be accepted as French.
Meanwhile, those who see the half-full version assure themselves that Dreyfus was amnestied in the end, and that the injustices revealed in the affair itself paved the way for Jews such as Léon Blum to become government heads in an age when the Nazis were in power. They will use the same statistics to point out not that one in four of France’s Jews were murdered during the Holocaust but rather that three out of four were saved.
Whether Polanski can add to this debate while shedding new light on an ever-pertinent affair is to be seen. His movie, “D,” begins filming in Paris later this year.
J-Connection: Roman Polanski's Polish-born father was Jewish.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.