By Gerard Leval
A few weeks ago, the film “J’accuse” came out in France. (The English title is “An Officer and a Spy.”) Directed by Roman Polanski, the movie focuses on the Dreyfus Affair and the efforts to exonerate Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the intelligence service of the French army, who was arrested in 1894 on a charge of espionage.
The French title is an allusion to an article published by the great author Emile Zola in defense of Dreyfus, which began the process that led to the ultimate exculpation of Dreyfus. Although Dreyfus was ultimately exonerated, the scandal engendered a wave of virulent anti-Semitism in France.
It would appear to be a tribute to France’s ability to overcome its old prejudices that a new film about one of the more regrettable episodes of discrimination and anti-Semitism in modern French history would be made into yet another major movie. This is especially the case since the movie opened to critical acclaim and was widely viewed during its first days on the big screen. However, very quickly the movie began to generate controversy and ample negative commentary. The film is now being boycotted by many and has been kept out of many movie theaters.
The subject matter of the movie seemingly has nothing to do with the controversy. Ostensibly, it is the identity of the director that is at the heart of the objections to the movie. The 86-year-old Roman Polanski is a renowned director, with many excellent movies to his credit. But he was also convicted in the United States of raping a 13 year old a number of decades ago and has been a fugitive from American justice since then. Yet, over the years, this did not seem to make any difference to the French, who showered adulation and honors on him. Recently, additional women have made allegations of misconduct against Polanski and the allegations seem credible.
Polanski is assuredly a complex and, in many ways, reprehensible personality. His apparent sins are accompanied by more than his fair share of misfortune. His wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child were murdered by Charles Manson and his gang more than 50 years ago.
It is also the case that Roman Polanski is a Polish Jew (although born in Paris) who survived the Krakow Ghetto and Nazi persecutions during the war years.
In the last few weeks, French talk shows, populated by political personalities and that special category of prominent individuals much beloved in France, professional intellectuals, have taken to debating whether it is appropriate to view the film or not. In particular, Polanski’s work (as distinguished from his behavior) has been defended by Alain Finkielkraut, a conservative Jewish member of the Académie Française, who has, in turn, been the object of attacks. The debate seemingly has nothing to do with Alfred Dreyfus or the Dreyfus Affair. No one suggests that the controversy has anything to do with Jews.
The French left, now echoing the American left, has become focused on feminism, identity politics and political correctness (with more than a smattering of anti-Zionism). “J’accuse” has become the object of disdain by exponents of those points of view and is the subject of rejection and unremitting criticism from many feminists and quite a few on the left of the political spectrum. The acclaim afforded to Polanski in the past has dramatically disappeared.
The Dreyfus Affair was not initially about Jews — it was about German espionage. But Dreyfus just happened conveniently to be Jewish, and his origins became a vehicle for promoting a variety of agendas, including anti-Semitism. However, anti-Semitism quickly became the dominant theme of the affair and overwhelmed all other aspects. The objections to the contemporary film about Dreyfus are not anti-Semitic, they are about an alleged rapist and notorious harasser of young women. Polanski’s Jewish origins are seemingly just incidental to the real issue that have embroiled the film. Or are they?
Anti-Semitism has a strange way of seeping into unexpected quarters. As a consequence of so much anti-Semitism over the course of so many years, sometimes Jews perceive anti-Semitism where it doesn’t exist. But it is also true that sometimes anti-Semitism is present when it does not appear to be present.
The French are fond of noting that the more things change the more they are the same. Is it possible that this adage has some relevance in the case of “J’accuse”?
Gerard Leval is a partner in a Washington law firm. He writes and lectures on topics of French and Jewish interest.