L’affaire Dreyfus (1899)
Director: Georges Méliès
Cast: Georges Méliès
L’affaire Dreyfus is entirely unlike any of French technical wizard George Méliès’ other output up to 1899, and is also one of his most ambitious projects prior to his signature movie, Le voyage dans la lune. Unlike most of Méliès’ movies, L’affaire Dreyfus is a political movie highlighting the injustice suffered by Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army who was sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island for treason in 1894. A couple of years after his sentence, evidence suggesting that the guilty party to the crime for which Dreyfus was imprisoned was actually a French army officer named Esterhazy came to light, but was supressed by high-ranking military officials who found Esterhazy not guilty after a two-day trial. However, rumours of the cover-up circulated, thanks largely to an accusatory tract written by famed author Emile Zola. Dreyfus was eventually completely exonerated of all charges, but when Méliès film was released, the controversy was still raging and L’affaire Dreyfus was banned because of riots between pro- and anti-Dreyfusards.
In all honesty, L’affaire Dreyfus is near-incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the details of the case. The film is made up of eleven chapters, each of which could be individually purchased by exhibitors. Each of these films is remarkably sophisticated for the era, boasting elaborate sets and, on occasion, effects. These aren’t Méliès’ usual ‘where did they go?’ pieces of furniture disappearing and re-appearing, but some quite surprisingly effective lightning effects as Dreyfus returns to France for a re-trial. There are other techniques which perhaps don’t stand out today, but having characters appear from behind the camera and walking towards the distance was virtually unheard of back in 1899, as was having them race towards and beyond the camera as they do in a scene in which pro- and anti-Dreyfus reporters come to blows.
It could be argued that L’affaire Dreyfus deserves the mantle of first narrative film rather than Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), but it’s really just a collection of scenes which, when compiled, don’t really tell a comprehensible tale. Of the eleven scenes originally made, only nine exist today, and because the film was made while the whole controversy was still raging it has no satisfactory conclusion anyway. Nevertheless, L’affaire Dreyfus is a considerably better movie than any other made at the time, and shows that Melies was capable of producing work more substantial than one-minute trick movies.
(Reviewed 25th August 2014)