The true story that inspired Roman Polanski in ‘The officer and the spy’

In the filmography of Roman Polanski, especially in his early works, mythology, terror and devilish creatures plague the narrative of his plots. There is something supernatural in his way of capturing the inner world of his characters. As if only through the deformation of reality could certain realities be captured. Perverse and fanciful aspects that, however, have coexisted with his most historicist look, outlining crude portraits of an era like The pianistabout the siege of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Oliver Twist, Tessalso within the documentary genre, as occurs in Weekend of a Champion.

With a life marked by social conflicts, especially during the World War II for his Jewish status, history, even with its most terrifying distortions, has always gained a special role in his stories, with attention to those who deal with anti-Semitism. Although it is true that, never, until The officer and the spy (2019), had dared with a film based on true events.

The Dreyfus Affair, the true story behind the film

Starring Oscar winner Jean Dujardin, the film narrates the famous “Dreyfus case” that shook France in the late 19th century. The film, which can be seen on RTVE Play until February 2puts us in the Belle Epoque, a period of great optimism and ambition regarding the future of the town. Years in which great scientific and technological advances awaken hope for the future in all of society. These are the years of the appearance of Freud’s psychoanalysis, or of new artistic movements, as well as cinema and radio. But all that glitters is not gold. Anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in society.. The Jews were seen as people outside the patriotic feeling, who only tried to satisfy their own interests. A hatred that would culminate in National Socialist Germany with the events that Polanski portrayed so well, years before, in The pianist.

The officer and the spy It happens, exactly, in 1894, when a captain of the French army, named alfred dreyfus (who in the film gives life louis garrell), of Jewish origin, was unjustly accused of high treason against his homeland. The evidence they provided for this accusation was a letter found torn to pieces in a German embassy bin with unknown addressee and without any name in the signature specifying that someone was willing to give information to this country about the French artillery.

Alfred Dreyfus Military Photograph

It must be remembered that, at that time, German military morale was badly weakened after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War against Germany and any alert was susceptible to extreme actions. Dreyfus fit very well in the profile of the spy who could have provided this information: he had knowledge of artillery, he knew German (due to his Alsatian origin, a French region where this language is spoken), but above all… he was Jewish.

Accused and sentenced, he is court-martialed in which they fabricate incriminating evidence and deport him forever to French Guiana, in addition to demoting him from his military posts. One year later, in 1895, the French secret services intercepted a letter addressed to ferdinan esterhazy detailing transfers of secret information from France to Germany. It is then that the head of Intelligence, Georges Picquart, played by Jean Dujardin in the film, realizes that the handwriting on this letter coincides with what Dreyfus had supposedly written.

The fight David against Goliath by Georges Picquart

A graphological study discovered that that handwriting was actually that of Officer Esterhazy. In addition, the commander, beset by financial debts, did have reasons to sell himself to the highest bidder. Picquart presented said evidence to the General Staff, but all he got was a transfer to Tunis.. It was clear, the army preferred to cover up the scandal, instead of punishing the guilty and saving the innocent. Picquart, whose stubbornness prevented him from giving up, continued to insist, which cost him expulsion from the military corps and a year in captivity. Adding insult to injury, the trial against Esterhazy ended with his unanimous acquittal. Everything seemed to go against Dreyfus, although the fuse was already lit.

The great headline that marked it all: J’Acusse

On January 13, 1898, L’Aurore published on the front page “J’Acusse”, the name that gives the film its title in its original version in French. Émile Zola, deeply convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, directs a letter to the president revealing the whole truth about the case. As he himself proclaimed in his L’Aurore: “The truth is on the march and nothing can stop it”. Zola, faced with numerous proclamations against his person, was forced to go into exile so as not to be imprisoned. However, he had set in motion an already unstoppable process. Alfred Dreyfus was tried again on September 10, 1899. Although it was a farce again.


Happy ending?

As in the previous trial, exonerating him would mean admitting the shame of the French army, for which he was sentenced again, although this time only to ten years. However, the Minister of War Godefroy Cavaignac examined the letter with which he accused Dreyfus, finding that it was clearly a forgery. The minister ordered the arrest of Hubert-Joseph Henry, colonel and person responsible for said forgery. By the time justice was sought, Henry had already committed suicide. Just nine days after the trial, Dreyfus was pardoned by the government. Georges Picquart, rejoined the military corps as a general.

Alfred Dreyfus, on the other hand, returned to the army as a commander, without his seniority being valued during his time in prison. By now, France was split in two. The right, which considered Henry a victim after his suicide, and the left, which was outraged by the outrages of the state. The tension became such that a coup was feared. Not bad for the Belle Époque.

[El oficial y el espía (2019), puedes ver la película aquí]

The true story that inspired Roman Polanski in ‘The officer and the spy’