Watch Georges Méliès’ The Dreyfus Affair, the Controversial Film Censored by the French Government for 50 Years (1899)

His­to­ry resounds with events so momen­tous they can be con­jured with a sin­gle word: Water­loo, Water­gate, Tianan­men, Brex­it.…

In the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, one sim­ple phrase, J’Ac­cuse!the title of an open let­ter pub­lished by nov­el­ist Emile Zolastood for a seri­ous injus­tice that inflamed the polit­i­cal pas­sions of artists, jour­nal­ists, and the pub­lic for decades after­ward, and pre­saged some of the 20th century’s most incred­i­ble state crimes.

Zola wrote in defense of French artillery cap­tain Alfred Drey­fus, who was accused, court-mar­shalled, and sen­tenced to life impris­on­ment on Devil’s Island for sup­pos­ed­ly giv­ing mil­i­tary secrets to the Ger­mans. It was the tri­al of the cen­tu­ry, writes Adam Gop­nik at The New York­er, and after­ward, Drey­fus, “a young Jew­ish artillery offi­cer and fam­i­ly man.… was pub­licly degrad­ed before a gawk­ing crowd.”

His insignia medals were stripped from him, his sword was bro­ken over the knee of the degrad­er, and he was marched around the grounds in his ruined uni­form to be jeered and spat at, while piteous­ly declar­ing his inno­cence and his love of France above cries of “Jew” and “Judas!”

Two years lat­er, com­pelling evi­dence came to light that showed anoth­er offi­cer, Fer­di­nand Ester­hazy, had com­mit­ted the trea­so­nous offence. But the evi­dence was buried, and the offi­cer who found it trans­ferred to North Africa and lat­er impris­oned. The Drey­fus Affair marked a major turn in Euro­pean civ­il soci­ety, “the moment where [Guy de] Maupassant’s world of ambi­tion and plea­sure met Kafka’s world of inex­plic­a­ble bureau­crat­ic suf­fer­ing.” After a per­func­to­ry two-day tri­al, Ester­hazy was unan­i­mous­ly acquit­ted by a mil­i­tary court, and Drey­fus con­vict­ed of addi­tion­al charges based on fal­si­fied doc­u­ments.

Five years after Drey­fus’ con­vic­tion, his sup­port­ers, the “Drey­fusards,” includ­ing Zola, Hen­ri Poin­care, and Georges Clemenceau, forced the gov­ern­ment to retry the case. Drey­fus was ulti­mate­ly par­doned, and lat­er ful­ly exon­er­at­ed and rein­stat­ed in the French army. He went on to serve with dis­tinc­tion in World War I.


Drey­fus’ accusers’ have most­ly sunk into obscu­ri­ty. His sup­port­ers— some car­i­ca­tured above as “the twelve apos­tles of Dreyfus”—included some of the most illus­tri­ous men of arts and let­ters in France. They can count among their num­ber the great French direc­tor and cin­e­mat­ic vision­ary Georges Méliès. Dur­ing the heat­ed year of 1899, “Méliès made a series of eleven one-minute non-fic­tion films about the Drey­fus Affair as it was still unfold­ing,” writes Eliz­abth Ezra,” por­tray­ing sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly Drey­fus’ arrest,” impris­on­ment, and retri­al. You can watch Méliès’ com­plete Drey­fus film at the top of the post.

It may be dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate the dar­ing of Méliès’ project from our his­tor­i­cal dis­tance, and in the some­what alien idiom of silent film. “For today’s view­ers,” writes Ezra, “it is not always easy to dis­cern the sym­pa­thet­ic ele­ments of the films, but the abun­dance of huffy ges­tur­ing and self-right­eous facial expres­sions on the part of Drey­fus make of him a dig­ni­fied hero who refus­es to be degrad­ed by the accu­sa­tions made against him.” (In this respect, Méliès antic­i­pat­ed anoth­er silent film about anoth­er unjust tri­al in France, Carl Dreyer’s The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc.)

Like­wise, we may find it hard to under­stand the sig­nif­i­cant social import of “Méliès’ only known expres­sion of polit­i­cal com­mit­ment.” But to under­stand the Drey­fus Affair, we must under­stand, as the Nation­al Library of Israel points out, that “France was already a divid­ed coun­try and the case act­ed as a casus bel­li.… ‘The Jew from Alsace’ encap­su­lat­ed all that the nation­al­ist right loathed, and there­fore became the sym­bol of the nation’s pro­found divi­sion.” Land­ing in the mid­dle of this polit­i­cal firestorm, Méliès’ Drey­fus series “pro­voked par­ti­san fist­fights,” writes Ezra.

Not only did the Drey­fus case intro­duce into the pub­lic eye a vicious anti-Semit­ic show-tri­al, but it also served as a test case for cen­sor­ship and media sen­sa­tion­al­ism. Méliès’ film, says author Susan Daitch in the On the Media episode above, was the first docu­d­ra­ma, the “first recre­ation based on pho­tographs and illus­tra­tions in week­ly news­pa­pers in France at the time.” And it proved so con­tro­ver­sial that it was banned, along with all oth­er Drey­fus films, for fifty years, and only shown again in France in 1974.

The film, says Daitch—who has writ­ten a nov­el based on the Drey­fus Affair—emerged with­in a par­ti­san mass media war of the kind we’re far too famil­iar with today. “Both sides,” Daitch tells us, “used and altered the media,” and Drey­fus was both suc­cess­ful­ly rail­road­ed into prison and suc­cess­ful­ly retried and exon­er­at­ed part­ly on the strength of his sup­port­ers’ and accusers’ pro­pa­gan­da cam­paigns.

The Drey­fus Affair will be added to our list of Free Silent Films, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

The film is con­sid­ered to be in the pub­lic domain in the Unit­ed States and comes to us via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Hor­ror Film, George Méliès’ The Haunt­ed Cas­tle (1896)

Watch After the Ball, the 1897 “Adult” Film by Pio­neer­ing Direc­tor Georges Méliès (Almost NSFW)

Carl Dreyer’s The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc (1928) Gets an Epic, Instru­men­tal Sound­track from the Indie Band Joan of Arc

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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