An Officer and a Spy
Roman Polanski has had a life that is eventful enough to be made into a film. The director was one of the hottest filmmakers in the late 60s with the great success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), however, only a year after that film’s success his pregnant girlfriend of the time, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by Charles’ Manson’s followers (dramatized in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)). The French-Polish director would go on to direct more classics, such as Chinatown (1974), but in 1977 would be charged with the rape of a 13-year-old girl, which would cause him to flee the United States to his native France. Subsequently the director kept on working in Europe, and was still hailed as a master filmmaker, even winning an Oscar, which he couldn’t accept himself in 2003 for The Pianist (2002). His latest film is the first to come out after the rise of the #MeToo movement, and thus it is curious that the subject matter Polanski chose is the Dreyfuss Scandal.
An Officer and a Spy (2019) tells of the famed anti-Semitic injustice that occurred in 1890s France. The event would come to mark the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe that would culminate with the Holocaust. The film follows the accusations towards Captain Alfred Dreyfuss (Louis Garrel), the only Jewish officer in the French army, who was falsley charged with passing military secrets to foreign governments. He was sentenced to life in jail in the solitary Devil’s Island. The film, however, decides to focus on Captain Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin) who was an instructor of Dreyfuss’ and would later be shuffled as Colonel of the Army Intelligence. It is here that Picquart begins to discover irregularities in the evidence that convicted Dreyfuss.
The film is a classic case of prejudice and injustice, which was so high profile in its day (the famed J’Accuse essay from Emile Zola came from it, and future prime minister Georges Clemenceau would become an activist for his exculpation) that it is strange that the story had not been brought to film before. With the specific rise of anti-Semitism in Europe today, it would seem to be a perfect moment to remind citizens of their own history and the dangers of prejudice. However, Polanski seems to want to shift away from the religious discrimination that the film showcases and seek the parallels he sees with himself. This comparison comes only from his own comments, for the film itself does not seem to be too concerned with the public image of the case as much as the inconvenient truths that are been stomped out.
As such the film feels much more relevant with political themes of truth and hate rather than the personal ones claimed by Polanski. The film itself, is an expertly made piece, which goes to unfortunately showcase that despite Polanski’s criminal activities, he is an expert director. The narrative follows a very methodical and almost procedural tone that matches well to the militaristic atmosphere that encompasses the film. There seems to be a great sense of loyalty towards the documented happenings as well as the rather undramatic ending of it all.
However, Polanski seems to be slave to such a tone to a fault, such diligence in portraying truths ends up detracting from the emotion and sentimentality that one could have gotten from the story. The film is able to spark outrage in viewers, but it is the same outrage that one would have from reading a well-researched newspaper article. The power of film is to show the more human side and emotional cost that history can have on characters, but Polanski seems to push this aside for a simple visual representation of facts instead. This does achieve the needed task to inform, but not so much the more important objective of prompting empathy.
In the end, An Officer and a Spy is a rather well-made film that seems to be too obsessed with teaching and leaves off the more dramatic and impactful emotional tools that cinema can have. Polanski has been able to make a rather timely film, that nevertheless seems to be prompting the filmmaker himself to studying his own history of truth and culpability.