Lives in film no. 1: Alfred Dreyfus – part 2

Alfred Dreyfus (inset) walks from the courtroom at Rennes, with the military guard lined up with their backs against him because of the disgrace that he represented. This and other frame grabs taken from the Biograph series of Dreyfus trial scene films, with kind permission of the Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

This series looks at the ways in which the early motion picture recorded and influenced the lives of some significant individuals. We have started with Alfred Dreyfus, and in part one we saw how Georges Méliès documented the ‘Dreyfus affair’ by creating a multi-part drama that demonstrated great fidelity to genuine incident and appearance. For part two, we look at the responses of other film companies to Dreyfus, which ranged from dramatic sketches to on-the-spot news coverage. Firstly, a recap of the Dreyfus story itself.

The Dreyfus affair
Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French officer, was arrested in October 1894 on suspicion of spying for Germany. A military court suspended him from the Army and on highly dubious evidence he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. In 1896 one Colonel Picquart found documents which seemed to offer convincing evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence and it became apparent that the guilty party was another French officer, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. The military authorities under General Auguste Mercier ordered the matter hushed up, and Picquart was transfered to Tunis. But Dreyfus’ family continued to plead his cause, and a campaign led by the author Emile Zola (who wrote an open letter to the French president Émile Loubet famously entitled ‘J’accuse’) resulted in a fresh trial in 1899, which became a mockery through the Army’s refusal to admit that it could be in the wrong and the general anti-Jewish hysteria that abounded. Dreyfus was found guilty again (to the shock and disgust of world opinion), but President Loubet swiftly pardoned him. The case was reviewed in 1906 and Dreyfus found innocent. The whole affair saw France bitterly divided between Dreyfusards (generally liberals, Socialists, anti-clericals and intellectuals) and anti-Dreyfusards (generally Roman Catholics, monarchists, anti-Semites and nationalists). It became the major political crisis of the Third Republic, and seriously weakened the world view of France as a champion of liberal values.

Francis Doublier
It’s not certain whether Lumière cameraman Francis Doublier‘s tale of exhibiting films of the Dreyfus affair while he was touring Russia in 1898 is apocryphal or not, but it is such a good story – recounted several times in histories of documentary – that has to be included for the record. He told the story several times – this version comes from a lecture that he gave in 1941 at New York University, which was reproduced in 1956 in Image magazine:

The Dreyfus affair was still a source of great interest in those days, and out of it I worked up a little film-story which made me quite a bit of money. Piecing together a shot of some soldiers, one of a battleship, one of the Palais de Justice, and one of a tall gray-haired man, I called it “L’affaire Dreyfus.” People actually believed that this was a filming of the famous case, but one time after a showing a little old man came backstage and inquired of me whether it was an authentic filming of the case. I assured him that it was. The little old man then pointed out that the case had taken place in 1894, just one year before cameras were available. I then confessed my deception, and told him I had shown the pictures because business had been poor and we needed the money. Suffice to say, I never showed “L’affaire Dreyfus” again.

Whatever the precise truth, Doublier’s story reveals two fundamental truths about film – one, that it doesn’t matter what the image literally shows but what you say that it shows that counts; two, that audiences aren’t always quite a dumb as filmmakers like to believe that they are. Or at least some of them aren’t.

Biograph is a name associated with D.W. Griffith, but the original company was the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and it made use of a 68mm filmstock which produced films of startling size and image quality. In term of product, it produced both comic sketches, often of a midly salacious nature for viewing through the peepshow Mutoscope, and films of actuality which tended to feature at prestige theatre screenings. It gained a high reputation for films of news, sport, travel and famous personages, particularly when one of its founders, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, moved to Britain in 1897 to become filmmaker for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Biograph diversified further, and the Société Française de Mutoscope et Biographe was formed in 1898. These two companies, and the American parent company, each produced Dreyfus-related films.

The Zola-Rochefort Duel, from The Wonders of the Biograph (1999/2000).

The first Biograph film related to the Dreyfus affair was the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s The Zola-Rochefort Duel, made around June/July 1898. This was the year of Emile Zola’s polemical open letter ‘J’accuse’ which brought the Dreyfus injustice out into the open. Henri Rochefort was a journalist and a rabid anti-Dreyfusard. The film dramatises a duel with swords between the two men in a park. A Biograph catalogue record describes it this:

This is a replica of the famous duel with rapiers between Emile Zola, the novelist, and Henri Rochefort, the statesman. The duel takes place on the identical ground where the original fighting occurred, seconds and doctors being present as in the original combat. The picture gives a good idea of how a French affair of honor is conducted.

However, there was no duel fought between Zola and Rochefort in reality, so either the film is meant to be symbolic or it is based on a false news report.

The American Biograph at the Palace – an advertising film for Biograph films (which were billed in the UK as American Biograph) at the Palace Theatre, London, highlighting films of the Dreyfus trial. From Richard Brown and Barry Anthony, A Victorian Film Enterprise. (1999).

The following year, at the time of the trial, Biograph used all of its publishing muscle (the British company was managed by newspaper and magazine interests) to promote itself as the company with all that anyone needed to see relating to the story of the hour. It produced an advertising film in which a billsticker puts up posters advertising Dreyfus films to be seen at the Palace Theatre in London (Biograph’s showcase theatre). The British company also produced Amann, the Great Impersonator, in which quick-change artist Ludwig Amann poses before the camera as Zola and Dreyfus, while the American branch made two films staring Lafayette, ‘the great mimetic comedian’, entitled The Trial of Captain Dreyfus and Dreyfus Receiving His Sentence (these latter two films do not appear to exist, but the three British films do).

Crowds pouring out of the courtroom at Rennes, filmed by Biograph. Dreyfus trial scenes, Filmmuseum.

However, Biograph’s major contribution to the Dreyfus affair was made by its French branch. The Société Française de Mutoscope et Biographe produced a series of what are effectively news reports filmed outside the courtroom at Rennes during Dreyfus’ second trial over August-September 1899. Here we are taken away from the comic sketches and dramatic reconstructions to the startling reality. The series of films (which are held by the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam) are extraordinary to witness, not just because they document the actuality, but because they do so with a camera style that comes across as all too modern. This is the inquisitive news camera, eagerly gazing on history in the making, making us news voyeurs, as we urge the camera to give us whatever glimpse it can of the personalities involved.

Alfred Dreyfus, in hat and dark civilian clothes, accompanied by an official (with white trousers), walks in the prison yard at Rennes, filmed by the Biograph camera from a high vantage point. Dreyfus trial scenes, Filmmuseum.

The camera operator certainly tried his best (we don’t know his name; some sources credit Julius W. Orde, but he was a director of the French company, not a cameraman). The most remarkable achievement was to capture a few seconds of of Dreyfus exercising in his prison yard, filmed from a platform built on a overlooking roof. It is pure paparazzi, except that the operator was working with a camera which with all its batteries and accoutrements weighed over half a ton. The fleeting sight of the man of the hour became a huge coup for Biograph, its brevity only enhancing the sense of a precious image snatched by the ingenuity of the operator. This film captured the headlines, but a second film of Dreyfus – illustrated at the top of the post – was also obtained, just managing to show him (via a frantic panning shot) walking from the court room across the street with a guard all standing with their backs to him because of the dishonour he represented (there was supposed to be a practical side to it as well, because the guard would be looking out for assassination attempts rather than looking at Dreyfus). A third film in the Filmmuseum set has a similar line-up of guards but it is unclear whether Dreyfus passes through them.

Lucie Dreyfus (second left) and Mathieu (second right) leaving the prison at Rennes, filmed by the Biograph cameraman tracking left. Dreyfus trial scenes, Filmmuseum.

The other film among the Dreyfus set that attracted much interest was filmed of Dreyfus’s wife Lucie and his brother Mathieu walking from the prison, with the camera tracking left to follow them as they turn a corner. The camera feels invasive, but we are also struck by the ordinariness of the scene, as the subjects recede in to the distance and the indifferent passers-by drift past or glance at the oddness of the Biograph camera. The remaining surviving films from this set include shots outside the court, with notable figures coming and going – one appears to be General Mercier, the lead prosecution witness. The films really should receive careful analysis from experts in the field, because none of the footage is accidental; the cameraman was trying as far as he could to capture something of all of the notable names. Another shot shows someones leaving the courtoom and entering a carriage (possibly Lucie Dreyfus), while another shows people pouring out of the courtroom into the open air in such a clear and animated image that the years fall away and we are back there in Rennes in 1899.

The other valuable thing about the Biograph films of the trial is that we know something of their reception. Of the court yard scene, a British theatre reviewer (from an unidentified journal clipping) wrote:

Out … comes Captain Dreyfus in civilian attire escorted by an official. Before the pair have walked five yards towards us the official espies the camera [it is not clear if this is the case], and at once hurries his charge out of sight again through the nearer door. Captain Dreyfus, who has come out for daily exercise, does not get much, for he is not in our sight for more than five seconds. The Biograph kindly repeats the view, not as an encore, but in consideration of its brevity. Without being an artistic success, it is likely to remain for some time the view that will excite the most interest. Last night it was received in ominous silence, but was heralded and succeeded by loud cheers.

This account (part of a longer review) shows how such films could be viewed both ironically and straightforwardly, while exciting a range of emotions in the general audience. Other reports reveal the sympathies of the British audience – film of Dreyfus’ lawyer Labori was cheered, while film of General Mercier was roundly booed (this also indicates that the films had live commentary from someone explaining who was to be seen going in or out of the courtroom).

While Georges Méliès’s L’affaire Dreyfus (discussed in part one) is relatively well-known, the L’affaire Dreyfus series produced by Pathé is less-discussed, chiefly because only one part of an original eight items survives. However it was quite similar in method to Méliès’s films, using dramatisation to document the reality and breaking up the the story into dramatic tableaux which could either be viewed singly or as a complete set. In this case we know the name of the actor who played Dreyfus – Jean Liezer. These are the titles of the individual episodes:

  • Arrestation, aveux du colonel Henry
  • Au mont Valérien: suicide du Colonel Henry
  • Dreyfus dans sa cellule à Rennes
  • Entrée au conseil de guerre
  • Audience au conseil de guerre
  • Sortie du conseil de guerre
  • Prison militaire de Rennes, rue Duhamel
  • Avenue de la Gare à Rennes

Each episode was 20 metres in length. To judge from the one episode that survives (at the BFI National Archive), Dreyfus dans sa cellule à Rennes, the style was more restrained than that adopted by Méliès (though Pathé like Méliès showed the bloody suicide of Colonel Henry). It place emphasis on producing a pseudo-realistic of the personalities and places involved, with a greater concentration on the events surrounding the second trial (conseil de guerre). The extant film (no still available to illustrate, unfortunately) shows the guards with their backs to those entering the courtroom. Were the whole series to survive, one suspects that it would be a comparable work to that of Méliès, in its keen attention to detail if not in dramatic verve.

Frames from L’affaire Dreyfus (1908), directed by Lucien Nonguet, from Dreyfus à l’écran film programme, Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, 2008

What does survive, however, is a second Pathé film, made nine years after the trial and two years after Dreyfus was finally found innocent. This is a longer work (370 metres) and a single, multi-scene film, directed by Lucien Nonguet and produced by Ferdinand Zecca. However, from the frame stills (I’ve not seen the film myself) the mise-en-scène seems remarkably similar to the 1899 films, the emphasis still being on documenting the look of key incidents through close replication of people and locations (compare the trial scene, to the right of the above frames, with the trial scene filmed by Méliès, illustrated in part one). The major difference comes through an additional character – this L’affaire Dreyfus features Esterhazy, the man who produced the document betraying French miitary secrets to the Germans that Dreyfus was accused of having written. His guilt is made clear from the opening scene, turning a series of unfortunate incidents in something with tragic impetus.

Photograph of Dreyfus leaving the courtroom at Rennes, showing the guard with their backs turned. Taken from the Dreyfus Rehabilitated site,

The 1909 film was the last to be made of the Dreyfus case until 1930. In 1915 the French banned any dramatic representation of the Dreyfus case from being made, and when Richard Oswald’s 1930 feature film Dreyfus was made, France still refused to allow it to be screened. But for the silent period, it was documenting history in the making that was important. The young medium used every means at its disposal to record the news story of 1899 (for some, the news story of the century) and to turn it into profitable entertainment. It employed both dramatic reconstruction and actuality, pushing the boundaries of the medium’s expression in each case, and demonstrating the power of motion pictures to capture the moment in a form that no other medium could quite emulate. Cinema brought you face to face with life itself.

Though it may be something of an inappropriate speculation, given Dreyfus’s Jewish faith, there is something of the Christian Stations of the Cross in the early Dreyfus films. Each illustrates the key stages in the victim’s noble passage to the point where false justice is executed through a series of tableaux. In each the victim is noble, passive, and wronged. The narrative does not develop in a form that is understandable to anyone new to the story, but instead represents passages of suffering told through tableaux that the faithful will recognise as having special meaning. It is interesting that the main multi-scene film narratives made in the 1890s are the two L’affaire Dreyfus films, assorted lives of Christ (by Lumière, Pathé and others), and Méliès’ Cendrillion (1899), or Cinderella – another episodic tale of suffering and redemption.

But what of Alfred Dreyfus himself? He is not recorded as being aware of the films that were made of him, and of course they were only a trivial distraction in the context of the issues that raged around him, issues of patriotism, religion, race and social order. Dreyfus was pardoned soon after the farce of the second trial, and was finally pronounced innocent in 1906. Despite the way it had treated him, he rejoined the Army, but retired on grounds of ill-health in 1907. However, he joined the Army once more in 1914 and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel (he had had hopes of eventually becoming a general before the catastrophe of 1894). He was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1918, and died in 1935.

Information on Biograph, including the filming and exhibiting of Biograph films, can be found in two sources in particular: Richard Brown and Barry Anthony, A Victorian Film Enterprise: The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1897-1915 (1999) and Mark van den Tempel and Luke McKernan (eds.), The Wonders of the Biograph, special issue of Griffithiana, nos. 66/70, 1999/2000). Although more has been discovered since it was written (not least the Biograph trial films), Stephen Bottomore’s article ‘Dreyfus and Documentary’, Sight and Sound (Autumn 1984) is still the best source for learning about the relationship between the Dreyfus affair and early film. Stephen also covers still photography, making it clear just what a media scramble the whole Affair was.

For extensive background information on the Dreyfus affair, the personalities and the issues involved, see the generally excellent Dreyfus Rehabiliated website. Unfortunately its section on the films of the affair is muddled. For a concise and informative book acount, see Eric Cahm, The Dreyfus Affair in French Society and Politics. For an atmospheric eye-witness account of the second trial itself, read G.W. Steevens’ The Tragedy of Dreyfus (1899), available from the Internet Archive.

The Biograph and Pathé films are not available online or on DVD.

The third and final part of this account will be a filmography.

5 responses

  1. Thank you, Luke, for another excellent essay. I had not heard of the Biograph films about Dreyfus. I remember a few years ago I realized that Dreyfus was one of the historical figures like Dred Scott in the US about whom I knew nothing after his trial was over. Before Wikipedia it took some effort to learn that he returned to service during WWI.

  2. I find it remarkable how Dreyfus was able to return to his former military life, despite all that he had been through, and despite ongoing prejudice – even after the pardon many continued to believe in his guilt, arguing that evidence had been supressed or key documents were forgeries, and although he was found innocent in 1906 some continued to believe him guilty and he survivied an assassination attempt in 1908.

    Thanks for the comparison with Dred Scott, about whom I know little and I now intend to find out a lot more.

  3. A fantastic job at recalling a significant and horrible time. These Dreyfus films are important to film studies and involve broader questions of representation, race, and history. I have wanted to see them for years, and this research is excellent.
    Thank you.

  4. Thanks. It’s a project I’ve been pursuing for years now, and it is an important topic for both film studies and socio-political history. The two don’t always come together too well, and some sources on the Dreyfus affair either overlook the films entirely or their interpretation of them is all over the place. So I hope this series serves as a helpful record. It would be good to see the Biograph films made generally available – it’ll happen some day.

  5. I’ve found one further Dreyfus film since completing part two, made by the Lubin Manufacturing Company: The Trial of Captain Dreyfuss [sic] at Rennes, France (USA 1899). It’s listed in Library of Congress Motion Pictures Catalog 1894-1912, copyrighted 28 September 1899. Presumably it would have been a close copy of another company’s films (Méliès?), as was common for Lubin. No copy exists, so far as I’m aware. I’ve included it the filmography for part three.

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