One tradition I’ve upheld on this blog ever since I began is that every year, on my birthday, I dedicate a post to someone from the world of cinema who shares my birthday.
This year, therefore, a post in honour of José Ferrer, the Puerto Rican actor who was born on January 8, 1912, and became the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor (for Cyrano de Bergerac). I confess I haven’t seen too many of Mr Ferrer’s films, but Moulin Rouge (in which he played the tormented artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) impressed me immensely. As did this one, a thought-provoking tale of an unforgivable miscarriage of justice.
Besides starring in I Accuse!, José Ferrer also directed the film. This is a retelling of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, which shook France in the late 1890s and had consequences as varied and far-reaching as Émile Zola’s hard-hitting “J’Accuse!” letter, to the establishment of the Tour de la France.
The film opens at the German embassy in Paris. A uniformed visitor arrives, wishing to meet the Military Attaché. Shown into the attaché’s office, this man (Anton Walbrook) introduces himself as Major Esterhazy, an officer of the General Staff of the French military. He gets down to business very quickly, only stopping to give a brief preamble: he is hard up and needs money. And he has something to offer the Germans: French military secrets.
The attaché is reserved, even somewhat contemptuous in his refusal of Esterhazy’s offer. But the suave and very confident Esterhazy has come armed to counter any refusals; he has brought with him a list of all the secrets—documents, designs, plans, etc—which he can share with the Germans. Before leaving, Esterhazy leaves his address with the attaché, saying that he looks forward to a long and fruitful association.
There is a brief but important spell at the end of the scene, after Esterhazy and the German have left the room. An old cleaning woman comes into the office, and begins to do the dusting. When her work brings her next to the wastepaper basket, she looks towards the ajar door to make sure no-one’s watching, then dips a hand into the basket and pockets the waste paper she finds lying in it.
The story now moves to the General Staff. It’s morning, and Captain Alfred Dreyfus (José Ferrer) has just entered. Within the first couple of minutes, the film establishes Dreyfus’s character, as he checks his watch against the bells ringing the hour nearby; as he goes into his office, fixes nibs in his pens, places the pens carefully against two separate inkwells, aligns a stamp that’s a little crooked, and takes out a set of portraits—of his wife and two children—which he places on the desk.
This is a man, obviously, who’s very precise, organised, and punctual. This impression—and that Dreyfus is a dedicated officer—is reinforced when his boss, Major Picquart (Leo Genn) calls for a report, and is surprised to learn that Dreyfus has already completed it. It emerges that Dreyfus often stays back after the other officers have left for the day.
It also emerges, from the conversation (and the distinctly snide remarks of the other officers as they pass by) that Dreyfus is a Jew—the first to be inducted into the General Staff. And that it was Major Picquart who recommended him for the post. While Picquart (as one would expect) approves of Dreyfus, there’s more than a hint of anti-Semitism in the behaviour of the other men.
Soon after, all the officers of the General Staff are summoned to be addressed by the Minister of War, General Mercier (Donald Wolfit). To the gathered officers, General Mercier announces that Colonel Sandherr (George Coulouris) of Counter-Espionage has something to say to them.
Sandherr’s announcement is only slightly longer than Mercier’s. He says that it has been discovered that some vital plans have been leaked to the Germans—in fact, the leak has been going on for some months now. They do not know who it is yet, but it’s obvious that it is one of these men assembled in this hall. Does anybody have any clue to the spy’s identity?
Nobody speaks up. Sandherr vows that he will get to the bottom of this. Should anyone discover anything, they are to report it at once.
One evening, Dreyfus is again working late at office, when Esterhazy (who does not know Dreyfus) happens to come by. Esterhazy is looking for Major Henry (Harry Andrews) of the Statistical Section. Dreyfus, who’s about to close up his office, offers to show Esterhazy to Henry’s office.
Henry, after welcoming Esterhazy, persuades both him and Dreyfus to have a drink in his office.
As they drink and chat (and Dreyfus politely but firmly turns down Esterhazy’s offer to go savouring the fleshpots of Paris), Henry mentions the spy to Esterhazy, and explains that they are now close to finding out who the man is. Some evidence has come to hand: a French secret agent working at the German embassy has found an incriminating letter that they will soon be able to trace to its source.
In the midst of this, Colonel Sandherr arrives, asking Henry for the roster of the Staff officers. Henry, before he complies with his boss’s orders, introduces Esterhazy to Sandherr; Sandherr already knows Dreyfus. Sandherr looks at the major, and asks (in a cold voice): “Esterhazy. Hungarian?”
“Originally. But now French.”
“Yes. It seems we have a lot of officers nowadays who were originally something else,” Sandherr says. He’s looking pointedly at Dreyfus as he finishes speaking. The French-born Jew is obviously, in Sandherr’s eyes, more of an outsider than the Hungarian-born Esterhazy.
Sandherr goes into his office, Esterhazy and Dreyfus go their respective ways, and Henry takes the roster to Sandherr. Sandherr and Henry now examine a letter—crumpled, as a result of having being consigned to a wastepaper basket from which it was retrieved. This, it transpires, had been sent to someone at the German embassy. It contains a reference to a French spy, an officer named only as D in the letter, and who is referred to as having been in the artillery.
Sandherr comes to a very swift, very biased conclusion: it has to be Dreyfus. Dreyfus, who was in the artillery. Dreyfus, who is an outsider. A wealthy man, and where has all that wealth come from? Most of all, Dreyfus the outsider.
He immediately orders Henry to summon Major DuPaty de Clam (one of my favourite screen villains, Herbert Lom). DuPaty de Clam is their handwriting expert, and will be able to tell definitely whether or not the handwriting in the letter is Dreyfus’s.
Dreyfus, totally unaware of the disaster that threatens, has gone home in the meantime. Here we see another side of the rather reserved and almost automaton-like man he is in office. At home, Dreyfus is an adoring husband to Lucie (Viveca Lindfors), an affectionate father to his infant daughter and his little son Pierre (who is army-mad, to the extent of having his own little uniform and wooden sword).
This evening, the Dreyfus household is also playing host to Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu (David Farrar), who is visiting Paris on business.
They spend a few hours together, laughing, chatting, exchanging presents (Mathieu has brought a Gladstone bag full of gifts for the family), and talking about this and that…
…totally unaware that their lives are about to fall apart.
The next morning, at the office of Colonel Sandherr, Major DuPaty de Clam arrives, and examines the incriminating letter. Sandherr summons Dreyfus’s boss, Major Picquart, and confronts him with the news that Dreyfus is almost certainly a traitor. In the minds of both Sandherr and DuPaty de Clam, Dreyfus is already condemned.
Picquart, however, refuses to believe any such thing.
There is a brief run-in between Sandherr and Picquart. While Picquart concedes that it looks suspicious, he does not agree that Dreyfus is guilty of treachery.
To establish the truth of the matter, Dreyfus is summoned. DuPaty de Clam has bandaged his own hand, and cites an injury as his reason for being unable to write; will Dreyfus write a letter on his behalf? He will dictate.
He does so—dictating the very letter that was discovered and is now the only piece of evidence they have.
An increasingly puzzled Dreyfus is wondering what this is all about when DuPaty de Clam takes the letter from him, quickly (too quickly) compares the handwriting on the letter he holds, and announces that he is arresting Dreyfus on the charge of high treason.
After that, things move very rapidly. Major Picquart seems to be the only officer who believes in Dreyfus’s innocence.
The military, of course, realise that this business has to be kept a secret. If the public should come to know of it, their faith in the army will be shaken—and no army can succeed if the nation is not behind it. So the entire Dreyfus case is kept under wraps. Not a word to the press, not a sentence in the papers…
…but the real culprit, Esterhazy, happens to discover (through Major Henry) that the ‘spy’ has been caught and arrested. When he finds out the name of the ‘traitor’, Esterhazy—seeing that here’s a chance for him to line his pockets—goes to a newspaperman with the news, in exchange for money. The next day, the news is all over the city. Lucie finds herself shunned (even by her housemaid, who gives notice), and both she and Mathieu look about frantically for someone to plead the case of Alfred Dreyfus.
They do find a lawyer, Demange (Felix Aylmer), who seems wise and competent (and, most importantly, convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence).
But the problem is that by now, because all of France knows about this allegation, it has become a question of honour. General Mercier, Colonel Sandherr, Major DuPaty de Clam: all of these powerful, influential men (at least with reference to this case) have categorically stated that Dreyfus is guilty. And they will go to any lengths to prove it.
The resultant court martial is a travesty of a trial. The prosecution rests its case on one single piece of evidence: the letter—and even the sample in Dreyfus’s handwriting bears only some similarities to it (which DuPaty de Clam summarily dismisses as being Dreyfus’s deliberate attempt to disguise his writing). Despite that, despite Major Picquart’s attempts to stress on Dreyfus’s dedication and hitherto commendable record—the defence is completely and brutally overruled.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus is given an option: if he admits to his guilt, there will be an appeal for leniency and he can hope to be exiled to some pleasant place in the colonies. If he refuses to confess, it’s the Devil’s Island (in French Guiana) for him. Dreyfus continues to insist that he is innocent, and even shouts it out, again and again, as he is ceremonially and publicly divested of his colours, his rank, the ribbons on his cap, his sword (which is broken in two).
He is sent off, far, far away, to Devil’s Island. To solitary confinement, where even the guards say nothing to him, until Dreyfus begins to wonder whether he’s gone deaf. Or gone mad. Or both.
The Dreyfus case is closed. An innocent man has been sent to a living death. And the world has forgotten, has moved on. All except Lucie, Mathieu, and Major Picquart—and what can they possibly do?
I had first read The Dreyfus Affair when I was barely in my teens, and not really keen on real-life stories—least of all anything with a whiff of politics in it. Despite that, the account gripped me and left me shaken with its depiction of gross injustice. This film, one of the later cinematic adaptations of the original case (the first version was a French one from 1899), was an engrossing and fast-paced film that I liked a lot.
What I liked about this film:
Instead of focussing only on the case as it proceeds in the courtroom, the film brings in other aspects, more personal aspects, of the story. For instance, Dreyfus’s relationships with people: with his wife and family, Mathieu, Major Picquart, even his brother officers. Gradually, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that there’s a reason why Dreyfus is a reserved and almost brusque officer, but a warm and affectionate man at home. Or why he stays back at office frequently to finish work… all because he’s acutely aware of the fact that his colleagues look down on him because of his religion. Their contempt is what has made him put up barriers around his professional self, and his need to prove himself as good as them (or better) is what drives him.
Then, there are the ironic symbols that pop up now and then. The film begins and ends with a shot of the French national motto: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—and one can’t help but marvel at how the Dreyfus Affair dragged those three ideals through the mud and grime of politics and ego.
Also, there is this interesting painting that hangs on the wall of the courtroom, just behind the judges, when Dreyfus’s case is being heard:
The crucified Christ. I don’t know if that is (or was) the norm in French courts of law. Regardless, it’s a sad reflection of an innocent being made to pay for the sins of others. And, ironically, an innocent who is not a Christian, but a Jew.
What I didn’t like:
The somewhat cardboard-cutout one-dimensional characters of the ‘bad men’: Mercier, Sandherr, and DuPaty de Clam, in particular. I won’t go on cribbing about that, though, because it may well be that the real men were as vile as they’re shown onscreen.
While I was watching I Accuse!, I kept thinking of Paths of Glory, which has certain similarities to this film. Both are about the French military; both are about innocent men who are made scapegoats so that the more powerful do not lose face. Both are, in their own way, about personal beliefs and principles versus what we must (or mustn’t) do.
I Accuse! is not a Paths of Glory—it is less subtle, and eventually, less depressing too. But it is a fine film, and a fine showcase of José Ferrer, director and actor.
Happy birthday, Mr Ferrer!