Intellectuals and the Media during the Dreyfus Affair.
The Dreyfus Affair was a military and political scandal that simultaneously shook and captivated French society at the turn of the 20th Century. It started with the discovery of an anonymous note, dubbed the ‘bordereau’. The bordereau contained French military secrets and was found in the German Embassy in Paris, in 1894. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian artillery officer of Jewish descent, was convicted of writing this note and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. What ensued was a 12-year bloodless battle between Dreyfus and his supporters, the Dreyfusards; and the anti-Dreyfusards. Whilst it was ultimately about the acquittal of Dreyfus, it came to represent much more: namely, the ‘conflict between the individual and society, one that encompassed the fight for universal justice; the immunity of the Army; the role of the Catholic Church in society; the national question; and the place of Jews in France.’ (i)It ended in 1906 with the exoneration of Dreyfus who was also reinstated into the Army.
The 11-part film series, ‘L’Affaire Dreyfus’, by French illusionist and film director, Georges Méliès, was released in 1899, whilst the Affair was still on going. (ii) It reconstructs events of The Dreyfus Affair; starting with the arrest of Dreyfus in 1894 and ending with the Rennes trial in 1899. Unfortunately, only 9 episodes survive as 35mm positive print today, episodes 2 and 11 being those which have not survived.
Méliès ratified his support of the Dreyfus cause with this film, which was said to be ‘le premier film engagé’.(iii) In the film, Dreyfus is visibly disgruntled and his gestures are often unduly dramatic. This emphasises Méliès’ opinion that Dreyfus was a ‘dignified hero who refuses to be degraded by the accusations made against him.’(iv) Méliès also chose to cast himself in the film as Dreyfus’ lawyer, Fernand Labori, in Episode 8. Casting himself in the film highlights Méliès’ sympathies with the Dreyfusards. This is further illustrated in his chosen role, Dreyfus’s lawyer, as he is playing someone who was in absolute defence of Dreyfus during the affair.
During the early years of the affair, national support was predominantly anti-Dreyfus. Few people questioned the official verdict that Dreyfus was guilty. On the 13th January 1898, however, French writer Emile Zola published his impassioned J’Accuse…! (v) This open letter, addressed to the President of France, Felix Faure, was published in the newly founded newspaper, L’Aurore. It came to the support of Dreyfus by questioning the legality of his conviction. It gave new life to Dreyfus’s cause, rallying supporters and catapulting it from a legal discussion to a public debate. Overnight it went from ‘l’affaire’ to ‘l’Affaire’. Zola was not the only figure to come to the defence of Dreyfus. The author Bernard Lazare had already published a 64-page brochure in 1896 in his defence (‘Une Erreur Judiciaire. La vérité sur l’Affaire Dreyfus’). However, it was J’Accuse…! that was widely accepted as the turning point for the Dreyfus cause. The creation of this film series, allowed Méliès to join this army of publically vocal Dreyfusards, that Zola brought together with the publication of J’Accuse…!
‘L’ÂGE DU PAPIER’
Throughout the film there is an emphasis placed to written documents; almost every episode is centred around characters who are reading or writing. Méliès also went to great lengths to try and base his storyline, sets and costumes on descriptions, illustrations and photographs that appeared in the press. For example, the Pro-Dreyfus newspaper L’Illustration.
Given that the end of the 19th century gave rise to the Golden Age of mass media and the rise of the masses in France, and the importance of the written word in the creation of the Affair itself, the significance that Méliès places on written documents is unsurprising.
The invention of the printing press in 1845 and the Linotype in 1885, allowed newspapers and journals to be rapidly printed in bulk and sold at a fraction of their previous price. In addition to these inventions, a much wider readership was developing. Social reforms during the late 1800s – including making education free and mandatory as well as the granting of universal male suffrage in 1848 – created a public who were increasingly educated and politically engaged.
Fig.1 L’Âge du Papier, Félix Vallotton
In light of this, it is not shocking that Zola chose to publish his inflammatory letter, J’Accuse…! in a newspaper; particularly given that his aim was to bring the debate into the public sphere and to the largest possible audience. Zola achieved his mission to reach the masses that day, as evidenced by the sheer numbers of L’Aurore. Sales were estimated at over 300,000 copies, 10 times the usual amount.
These public displays of support or opposition to a cause, and the use of mass media to disseminate these views by figures such as Emile Zola, gave rise to a new term, ‘the intellectual’. The term has come to be defined as someone who intervenes in public life in support of a controversial cause and is still widely used in political discourse. Méliès’ emphasis on written documents, his pro-Dreyfus standing in this film and the films claim to be a reconstruction of the truth, heralded the widening of film’s function, beyond entertainment, to its ‘potential to be a new form of document’. (vi) Highlighting the evolving influence of the visual media at the time ‘in representing and transmitting cultural values and ascertainment of the truth.’ vii Thus, like Zola, Méliès himself could perhaps be deemed an intellectual of the Dreyfus era, film being his chosen media format.
(i) Rimoch, D., “The Affair or the State: Intellectuals, the Press, and the Dreyfus Affair” (Senior Honors Theses, University of Pennsylvania, 2008), p.6
(ii) L’Affaire Dreyfus, dir. By Georges Méliès (Star Film Company, 1899)
(iii) Sadoul, G., Histoire générale du cinema (Paris: Denoël,1984), p.119(iv) Ezra, E., Georges Méliès: The Birth of the auteur (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p.69(v) Zola, E., ‘J’Accuse…!’ on L’Obs, at: https://www.nouvelobs.com/societe/20060712.OBS4922/j-accuse-par-emile-zola.html [Accessed 13 November 2018]
(vi) Ezra, E., p. 72
(vii) Ezra, E., p. 72
Fig.1: L’Âge du Papier by Felix Vallotton. Published in Le cri de Paris, 23rd January 1898 https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b69517674/
Chronology of the Dreyfus Affair: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/guieuj/DreyfusCase/Chronology%20of%20the%20Dreyfus%20Af fair.htm
Conner, T. The Dreyfus Affair and the rise of the French public intellectual (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014)
Ezra, E., Georges Méliès: The Birth of the auteur (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
Hazareesingh, S., ‘Intellectuals and Politics in France’, Oxford Scholarship Online, (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011)
Hewitt, N., The Cambridge companion to modern French culture / edited by Nicholas Hewitt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Hyman, P., ‘The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical’, The Journal of Modern History, 61 (1989), 88-109 https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1880968.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A53bc1877c82d33b0a4aba1 ae90231fbd
L’Affaire Dreyfus, dir. By Georges Méliès (Star Film Company, 1899)
Lazare, B., Une Erreur Judiciaire. La Vérité Sur l’affaire Dreyfus (Brussels: impr. De Vve Monnom, 1896)
Rimoch, D., “The Affair or the State: Intellectuals, the Press, and the Dreyfus Affair” (Senior Honors Theses, University of Pennsylvania, 2008)
Sadoul, G., Histoire générale du cinema (Paris: Denoël,1984)
Zola, E., ‘J’Accuse…!’ on L’Obs, at:
[Accessed 13 November 2018]