There are occurrences in history whose importance we do not grasp when they happen, as Roman Polański narrates with class in this 2019 movie, An Officer and a Spy.
This biographical drama concerns the infamous Dreyfus Affair, a political and judicial scandal that deeply divided French society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Everything begins with Captain Alfred Dreyfus being publicly convicted and humiliated for treason and subsequently sent to Devil’s Island, a prison located in French Guiana.
Officially, the charge is of passing secret military information to the German Empire, yet the real motives behind this trial/farce are pretty different.
Indeed, ignorance drives the general hatred against the Germans, the deep division between republicans and royalists, and the blatant racism deeply rooted within the army and society.
This desperate soul finds an unsuspected ally in Georges Picquart, a French intelligence officer who believes his guilt is based on false evidence and motivated by anti-Semitic prejudice since Dreyfus was of Jewish origin.
His superiors do not like his investigation at all, even though they know a different soldier is guilty of treason.
So they begin to manipulate the evidence and witness statements, removing Picquart from his assignment away from the public interest in the French capital.
Despite political pressure and threats to his career, the officer does not give up and works to reopen the case and try to rehabilitate Dreyfus’s name.
At that point, the military leadership cannot avoid a new trial, where every piece of evidence is skillfully destroyed by Picquart, who ridicules his superiors before the people.
Even court victory will not serve to ultimately deliver justice, further provoking the rise of socialism and radicalism in France.
Roman Polanski never fails in his meticulous, detail-oriented style, creating an atmosphere of tension and suspense that sometimes erupts into absurd, tragic comedy.
Despite the wide range of emotions shifting from scene to scene, the brilliant director at the same time maintains a strict sense of historical realism.
The movie highlights a society permeated by lies and corruption. They identify the real culprit primarily because he is unwelcome to all and, moreover, of Jewish origin, making him an ideal scapegoat.
In the course of the affair, the truth proves increasingly insignificant and inconvenient for the military high command, highlighting their indifference to justice.
Fortunately, it is an artist who awakens public opinion about this scandal, writer Èmile Zola, who raises hell with a public letter to the President of the Republic, the famous J’accuse.
Despite the many events and characters involved, Hervé de Luze‘s excellent editing keeps the plot pieces together at an enjoyable pace, which only becomes more frenetic during the chaotic final trial.
At the same time, the plot demands commitment from us viewers because there are several nuances that we need to grasp, even if they are not overtly explained as in Robert Harris‘ novel of the same name.
The celebrated writer is, in this case, also at the screenplay with Polański, achieving an excellent balance between the literary and cinematic versions of this Story, with a capital S.
Finally, the technical crew’s work is sublime in the sets and costumes by Jean Rabasse and Pascaline Chavanne, respectively, which are more than adequate to assist that realism loyal to the late 19th-century France period.
While not simply an entertaining movie, An Officer and a Spy is a 2019 history lesson adults and children alike cannot and should pay attention to.
A Gem of French Actors Performance
The actors immerse into their roles with such mastery they seem to teleport directly to the dawn of the 20th century, bringing to life an era of injustice and intrigue.
Their performances contribute significantly to the emotional impact and power of the scandal, starting with Jean Dujardin, who plays Colonel Georges Picquart, the protagonist.
Already acclaimed for his role in The Artist, Dujardin delivers a performance of sober obsession and tenacity, fully capturing the character’s determination and sense of justice.
His performance effectively shows Picquart’s evolution from an officer who initially accepts Dreyfus’s guilt, having also been his superior, to a man committed to shedding light on the truth and fighting against almost all his fellow soldiers in the French army.
Instead, in Dreyfus’s ungrateful role, we have Louis Garrel, whom I had already thoroughly enjoyed in the friends/lovers trio in Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Dreamers.
Here his portrayal of Dreyfus is initially anger and outrage, although his long isolation and the pain of public humiliation make him weaker and uncertain year by year.
There could be no shortage of a female figure to relieve this fiercely masculine military environment, so to fill the role, we have Roman Polański‘s stunning wife, Emmanuelle Seigner.
The magnificent French star plays Pauline Monnier, the loyal friend and confidante trying to stand by Picquart (unfortunately, only partially succeeding). At the same time, the storm of anger and retaliation from his superiors rages around.
Polański lines up the misfortunes of all these characters by telling a chronicle of injustice in no hurry, letting us apprehend each unfair strike wounding their lives and careers.
Ultimately the truth will hurt more than these paltry political maneuvers, even if the French principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity triumph only in part.