Synopsis: Everything starts at German Embassy at the “rue de Lille” in Paris. Madame Bastian is the cleaning lady of the German Embassy in Paris. She pretends to empty the trash can every morning, but in reality she just takes the documents thrown in the trash can and she gives them to French Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry. One day in September 1894, Madame Bastian finds a non-signed letter without any signature, what would become “le bordereau”, that was cut into 6 pieces. The letter was addressed to Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, who used to be Imperial German military attaché at the German Embassy in Paris. “Le bordereau” puts forward some confidential information about French military documents to foreign powers. Then Minister of War Auguste Mercier orders an internal investigation to find the guilty person and a “perfect culprit” is rapidly “identified”: an artillery officer, named Alfred Dreyfus, because he had access to confidential documents, he was Alsatian (from Alsace), which means that he spoke German, which could allow him to easily communicate with the enemy and, most importantly, he was a Frenchman of Jewish faith. Are these three characteristics enough to be guilty? Will Alfred Dreyfus manage to prove his innocence?
“J’accuse” by Polanski starts on 5 January 1895: Alfred Dreyfus’ ceremony of degradation takes place in the Morlan Court of the École militaire – French Military academy – in Paris. While the drums roll, Dreyfus is accompanied by four artillery officers, who accompany him in front of an officer of the state who delivers the judgment. A Republican Guard adjutant tears off his stripes, badges, cuffs, thin strips of gold and sleeves of his jacket. There were 4000 soldiers and 20.000 spectators witnessing this terribly unfair ceremony. Witnesses report that Dreyfus was claiming his innocence by raising his hands up to the sky and shouting: “Soldiers, they degrade an innocent person! Soldiers, they bring disgrace on an innocent! Vive la France! Vive l’armée! “. Then, the Adjutant breakes his sword into two pieces on his knee and then the dishonored Dreyfus marches slowly in front of his military companions.
Alfred Dreyfus’ degradation, 5 January 1895. Picture by Henri Meyer on the cover of Le Petit Journal (13 January 1895), captioned “The Traitor”.
This historical drama unfolds during a difficult time for France, because on the context of shock and humiliation of loosing Alsace-Lorraine nationalism and violent outburst of antisemitism are on rise. Captain Dreyfus denies all the accusations, but the French Army ignores Captain’s arguments. An implacable machine starts functioning against Alfred Dreyfus: an incredibly long chain of lies, forgery, false allegations of inquiry diversions, violations of the army law and abusive decisions of military tribunals. When the captain’s handwriting doesn’t correspond to that of the “le bordereau”, an “expert” develops the theory of “self-forgery” and says, without having any proof, that Dreyfus himself had invented that new way of handwriting. Arrested on October 15, Captain Dreyfus refuses to “confess” anything and they propose him a revolver to suicide, but Dreyfus doesn’t do anything with the revolver. Afterwards, Alfred Dreyfus is charged with sharing intelligence with the enemy and secretly gets incarcerated. In late October, an antisemitic journal, called “La Libre Parole”, reveals the case and rages against Dreyfus. This is the beginning of an antisemitic campaign that gets proliferated throughout France and many other innocent Frenchmen of Jewish faith suffer from this violent wave of antisemitism.
Alfred Dreyfus’ brother, Mathieu Dreyfus, hires the best lawyers and all the lawyers are convinced that their client will come out clear of the affair that’s going to take place within the Council of War. It is with great dishonesty that they process a file, where they examine only the inculpatory evidence and never the exculpatory evidence, which means that they just try to “prove” Dreyfus’ guilt and pay no attention to the importance of his innocence. Therefore, they violate Alfred Dreyfus’ right to presumption of innocence. When the army understands that the absence of Dreyfus’s guilt could mean that Dreyfus could be declared non-guilty, they create a “secret file” to accuse Dreyfus. This “secret file” was pretended to be too important to be revealed publicly or even during the process, because it contained 4 different pieces of information concerning Dreyfus’ guilt. It is only later, much later, that we discover that the “secret file” was empty. Dreyfus was condemned to expulsion to Aubagne and experienced a dishonorable discharge from the French Army. The antisemitic press was gloating over antisemitism. Many were regretting the fact that Dreyfus was not condemned to capital punishment.
While living on this island, his brother tries to continue the fight and little by little he finds people, who support Dreyfus. Those defending him, are called “dreyfusards” and require to reconsider the process. The Army is afraid and starts creating more and more fake documents. Georges Picquart, then French army officer and Minister of War, starts suspecting the fairness of the process and rapidly finds the real traitor, named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who was a spy for the German Empire and the actual perpetrator of the act of treason. But neither the army nor the judges want to pay attention to his findings and the poor Georges Picquart gets treated the same way as Dreyfus: unfairly. They send him to Tunisia and he almost gets incarcerated. When it comes to Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the justice doesn’t condemn him and he goes to the UK, where he lives happily until the end of his life in 1920.
During all this time, France is divided over this affair into different camps, including “dreyfusards”. Among all those “dreyfusards”, who felt that French “republican spirit” was violated, there are some notable people like Mathieu Dreyfus, Bernard Lazare, Georges Clémenceau, Léon Blum, Octave Mirbeau, Anatole France and most importantly Émile Zola. Émile Zola was at the top of his glory and uses his popularity and his powerful name to defend Alfred Dreyfus. On January 13 1898, a journal, called l’Aurore, publishes Zola’s letter to then French President Félix Faure. It is the famous letter that was intitles “J’accuse”. A title that is given to Polanski’s film. L’Aurore generally sells only 30.000 examples, but the “J’accuse” publication reached 300.000 sold examples. Émile Zola resumes all the affair from the beginning to the present moment within 6 columns, where he accuses the army, the falsifiers, the unfair and so on. His goal was to get charged with some legal accusations, which would allow him to defend himself in front of the justice by requiring to reveal the “secret file” of Dreyfus Affair. The word “intellectuals” emerges within this framework and refers to those writers, artists, lawyers, academics who are involved in public debates and have different standpoints, but particularly in favor of Dreyfus. To resume, Zola is condemned for defamation against French Army, but he achieved his goal to inform the great public of those sordid details that brought Dreyfus to the great injustice he was still suffering from.
Dreyfus Affair has long been evolved into a state affair and there were many incompatible standpoints and opinions with then French Government that were causing a real instability within the government. In 1899, the overhaul process of the affair becomes inevitable and Dreyfus is brought back to continental France. The new process takes place in a French city, named Rennes. Once again, there is no evidence that Dreyfus is guilty, but he is again condemned. This time, for 10 years of prison and further military degradation. The day after the verdict, Alfred Dreyfus, after much hesitation, filed an appeal for a retrial. Waldeck-Rousseau, in a difficult position, offered for the first time the possibility of a pardon. Dreyfus had to accept guilt. Overwhelmed and exhausted, having been away from his family for around 5 years, he unwillingly accepts the “pardon”. The decree was signed on 19 September 1899 and he was released on 21 September 1899. Alfred Dreyfus later participates in the WW1 and is not accused in anything neither during nor after the war. He dies in 1935.