Docudrama 1900: L’affaire Dreyfus

L’affaire Dreyfus
R: Georges Méliès. P: Star Film. Fr 1899

Georges Méliès is said to have picked up his strong Dreyfusard feelings from discussions with his cousin Adolphe. It is heartening to know that France’s great creative filmmaker in the early years of cinema chose the right side. He set about making his Dreyfus films with an eye to commercial opportunity but also as a means to express his personal sympathies – probably the first time that film had ever been used in this way. His approach was radical – he would make a multi-part news narrative, tracing the Dreyfus story from his original imprisonment in 1894 to the second trial in 1899. At a time when films were almost entirely single-shot narratives of less than a minute in length, Méliès produced a 15-minute, eleven-part chronological series of documentary fidelity and great cinematic invention (strictly speaking it was twelve parts, as one scene covers two catalogue numbers in the Star-Film catalogue). Filming took place August-September 1899, while the trial was taking place, at his studios at Montreuil, Paris.”
Luke McKernan
The Bioscope

“A genuine attempt to record Dreyfus on film took place when the prisoner was brought back from Devil’s Island in July 1899 to face a second trial in France. This event, taking place in Rennes, became a great media circus, with scores of journalists and photographers descending on the town. In amongst them was a certain Monsieur Orde, carting a huge Biograph camera around the streets, and, despite the protests of the Dreyfus family, trying to record anything connected with the affair. He managed to film Madame Dreyfus on one of her visits to the prison and, by renting a house across from the prison yard and biding his time, succeeded in obtaining a shot of the prisoner himself on one of his daily walks. The next step in the screen portrayal of Dreyfus was dramatisation, and two film versions of the affair were made in 1899: Georges Méliès began work on his one in August, which consisted of some twelve separate scenes, showing Dreyfus (played by an ironworker) from his arrest, through his degradation and imprisonment, to the trial in Rennes. A Pathé version, in six scenes including the trial, was in production at about the same time, and both were on the market by the autumn of 1899. Méliès was a passionate Dreyfusard, and his portrayal of the prisoner reflects the filmmaker’s sympathies, though this was not to everyone’s taste: the first screening provoked fighting between pro- and anti-Dreyfusards, and Méliès’ version was apparently banned by the French government, the first instance of film censorship for political reasons. A restriction on showing films about the Dreyfus affair was only lifted in 1950. The affair had clearly demonstrated, even in this very early period, that the cinema could tackle burning contemporary events in both factual and dramatised formats.”
Stephen Bottomore
Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema

Dreyfus in the French media: Dreyfus’ suspension from the army, the court room at Rennes and the attempt on M. Fernand Labori’s life

291-Affäre Dreyfus-Le Petit Journal

290-Der Dreyfus-Prozess in Rennes

289-Attentat auf Labori-Le Petit Journal


Zur politischen und historischen Bedeutung der Dreyfus-Affäre:
Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung