Shot by Shot Analysis of Georges Melies’s forgotten masterpiece “The Dreyfus Affair” (1899)
I am just going to start out by saying that the BEST work by Georges Melies is not “Le Voyage dans la Lune” or the other countless knock off “Sci Fi” or magic trick films that have him placed as one of the most studied and talked about directors from this primitive period in cinema history.
The overlooked truth is that Georges Melies had a drive in him to tell stories about the trial and endeavor of human will, no doubt in part because of the time period in which he was lucky enough to live but also because he saw the possibilities of power that was held in this new art form. He knew that cinema would truly find its form and place not with spectacles but with the honest depictions of life around all of us.
Unfortunately George Melies gave us more spectacle than substance because the man had to make a living but the small groups of work in that vein he left us with are something to treasure as seminal pieces of both narrative and character. In 1899 Melies made an 11 reel serial that would become known as The Dreyfus Affair, a bleak, violent, contemporary ( for the time ) look at a controversial world event that was GOING ON AT THE EXACT same time that Melies was making a dramatic narrative about it. its rare to find other examples of such a project, and its hard to imagine such a project taking place today
Historically The Dreyfus Affair was a french political scandal that started in 1894 lasting until 1904 – in which a young military captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sent to life in prison. After four years in prison another third party investigation led to evidence that pointed Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit but high ranking french officials suppressed this information, acquitted Esterhazy after a two day trial, and then convicted Dreyfus of ANOTHER crime based upon falsified documents. Word of this misconduct with the military began to spread, as well as accusations of antisemitism within the high ranks of the Armées Françaises. In 1898 an article was published by famed author Emile Zola bringing to light this very injustice which pressured the government to reopen the case and finally in 1899 Dreyfus returned o stand Trial once again and set free. ( although the trial in 1899 resulted in another conviction and a ten year prison sentence, Dreyfus was pardoned and set free )
The Dreyfus Affair is a masterpiece, plain and simple, there is nothing from that year, the year before or the year after that can match its bravado, and raw story telling energy.
This is Georges Melies’s “The Dreyfus Affair” made in 1899
SHOT ONE – Dreyfus Court Martial—Arrest of Dreyfus
The film is composed of 10, one minuted episodes with each episode composing of one shot
Episode one begins in the office of Alfred Dreyfus, a very clean, modern, big office with a huge creek statue right over his head and almost at the very center of the frame. Armand du Paty de Clam enters the room requesting dreyfus to sign his name in order to gain a sample of his handwriting
While Dreyfus is writing, du Paty noticed the nervousness of his quick actions and very prematurely convicts Dreyfus of being the author of anonymous letter that was sent to the German embassy, du Paty hands Dreyfus a gun suggesting that he commit suicide, Dreyfus soundly rejects this with rage and is quickly arrested.
In the frame above we land at a moment right after Dreyfus picks up the gun that du Paty has just slamed onto the desk, suggesting that Dreyfus use it to end his life, and make everything easier for everyone. The men to the right are almost lifeless, either a fossil from the time where the audiences eye line had to be completely focused or perhaps simply because the men are listening, only there to protect du Paty in the event that Dreyfus Resists, their very interest shows the importance of this moment within contemporary french politics, and the light coming through the beautiful grand window, shines just on du Paty, painting him in an almost god like statute suggesting that dreyfus is absolutely powerless against the upper rankings of the french military
SHOT 2 – The Degradation of Dreyfus ( the best title of all the episodes )
Unfortunately episode 2 of the 11 episode story is currently unavailable from any online version of the Dreyfus affair
Descriptions of the scene has painted it as a moment when we realized the scale of the conviction of Dreyfus, walking past soldiers whom all greatly respected him the day before, now in complete disgust, laughing, throwing rocks, and even punching Dreyfus as he is carried away.
SHOT 3 – La Case de Dreyfus à l’île du Diable (Devil’s Island—Within the palisade)
Dreyfus has been imprisoned in the infamous devils island in French Guiana, he paces back in forth from one plain white fence to the other. the large tower and all seeing eye behind him, giving him no comfort, Dreyfus has been stripped of his identity, status, and moral. A guard comes in giving Dreyfus a letter, probably from his wife. Dreyfus attempts to make conversation with the guard but the guard soundly rejects any contact with the prisoner and goes about his way.
This scene marks the pivotal moment in terms of how low they are willing to send Dreyfus, with a once well respected military captain is not even good enough to make small talk with a prison guard out in some shit whole. This is truly a sad moment, the boring every day ritual of meditating in the yard is becoming tiresome and Dreyfus longs for any sort of human contact
The plain white buildings, and grey sky cloudless sky above, the grass-less yard with a single presumably locked shed to the far end. How do you imagine Dreyfus must be feeling? a prison in the worst place imaginable and the most powerful people in the country are the ones who put you there, powerless to the authority. A victim of politics and racial divide, Dreyfus needs the people.
SHOT 4 – Dreyfus Put in Irons – Dreyfus mis aux fers (la double boucle)
Sleeping in his small barn-like cell, Dreyfus is awoken by two guards entering, waking him rudely, and placing iron shackles on his feet, pinning him to the bed
Dreyfus has become an animal, forced to be restrained to the bed for fear of him running off. The iron bars on the window, the awkward pipe coming from the smack center of his cell running into the roof, the wooden boards on the roof that looks like it could collapse at any moment, this is not only a cell, this is a backroom closet they reserve for prisoners they simply do not care about or regard as less than human.
You can see Dreyfus plea but its of no use, there is nothing the guards can do, it is simply bigger than him Its a sad feeling to be powerless especially as a prisoner to the very nation you swore to protect. The dreary light coming from the window, and the skewed shape of the building give an almost pre expressionist style depiction of dread, and the slow moving pace of the scene while the guards move quickly to get the job done just feels like something isn’t right. a tonal manipulation by Melies that is painfully ahead of its time
SHOT 5 – Suicide of Colonel Henry
This next scene is one of my favorites and one of the most violent. One of the men who would later be found out to be one of the main conspirators and someone who directly helped create false evidence against Dreyfus sits in the small stone prison cell, next to a table where he pens a farewell letter to his family.
He gets up, grabs a shaving razer and slices his own throat, falling onto the bed and then onto the ground
This is another beautiful, pre expressionist exercise in tonal manipulation, Melies knows exactly how he wants you feel during that scene and that notion of knowing the exact perfect tone for this moment is represented in the the excellent use of window light coming through a small six box iron bar window, creating a dreary sensibility that makes the scene absurdly brutal.
One of the best moments in this scene is when you think the colonel is putting his hands to his face to pray, seemingly at peace with this decision but you see him quickly hit his own hands away, indicating he is freaking out, trying to find a way for him mentally to decide not to go through with it but the anxiety is just too much, the painful realization of what he has done is so much, he decides to take a dull blade and cut through the veins of his own neck, one of the most painful ways to die was easier than living with the anxiety the colonel felt.
SHOT 6 – Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon
One of the quickest and most insignificant of all the episodes, also has one of the most unique and new visual effects of the time. This scene is fairly quick, Dreyfus gets out of his boat, being transferred from one prison to the next, he gets out of his small boat, to a whole army of guards awaiting him right on the dock, a pure power play struggle to do nothing more but scare Dreyfus, show him the might off the french military.
You will notice small streaks run through the frame, some of them even in front of a few of the actors, this is some of the earliest lightening in cinema, and not surprisingly something that Melies actually invented the year previous. The rocking of the boats in the background is beautiful, the unchanging sea a beautiful antonym for the quickly changing, hectic life of Dreyfus.
SHOT 7 – Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes
This to me is the most heartbreaking moment of the entire film, you see Dreyfus to the right, sobbing, his hand covering his face, completely broken a few seconds after seeing his wife, the mere sight of her takes every ounce of strength Dreyfus has built up and breaks it down, the moment he realizes the true extent of the life that is being robbed from him, he just falls.
The episode begins with Dreyfus, sitting alone in his now larger more spacious cell, his legal council then enters, the famed lawyers Maître Labori and Demange greet Dreyfus as if he is the man of the hour, a rare gift of respect he is refused, something to remind him, the world hasn’t forgotten about him and that he still a man. They talk and talk, share a laugh and generally have high spirits about the future of his conviction, a guard then enters telling Dreyfus that his wife arrives,. nervous he gets up slow, she rushes in and jumps into his arms.
He is able to embrace her for the first few seconds but quickly breaks down
Letting out all the sadness, resentment, hate, guilt, shame he has been holding in for way too long
Its hard for this scene to not effect you
This shows a truly defeated man, someone so powerless, so hungry. Time is a sneaky, unforgiving, cruel mistress whom only shows in the face of the ones you love
SHOT 8 – The Attempt Against the Life of Maitre Labori
Another Violent Episode and the second to not feature Dreyfus, this episode recalls the shooting and attempted murder of Dreyfus’s famed lawyer Maitre Labori, whom we saw for the first time in the previous episode
The scene begins with the council walking through the street towards a small foot path bridge next to a very Gothic street lamp. We see another figure poke his head into frame and quickly exit, coming back several seconds later, this time lower in the frame
he pulls out a medium sized black gun, shooting in the group hitting Labori in the back, who falls to the ground. The shooter thinking the job is done quickly runs off, as does the two companions that Labori was with!
Imagine that, you are shot, and your friends leave you in the middle of the street, bleeding with one of the most painful injuries imaginable.
This is one of the best scenes ever shot pre 1900, its violent, fast, heartbreaking and shot in arguably the most perfect wide in history.
The implications of this are incredible, the french military, so highly engaged in this conspiracy, were forced to hire a hitman to kill the legal team trying to defend Dreyfus. The two options are that the conspiracy goes so far up in the chain of command and powers at be, that they simply have to seal any lose ends, they literally have to ensure that this does not come to light or the else the people may lose faith in the government, or that they know Dreyfus is close to finding evidence that will set him free and uncover those responsible, either way, this is a HUGE moment for both this narrative and the actual event
SHOT 9 – The Fight of Reporters at the Lycée
This episode is my personal favorite of the entire film, it depicts a room full of journalists during a break in the proceedings, an argument breaks out between Arthur Meyer of the ‘Gaulois’, and Mme. Severine of the Fronde, it essentially erupts into a full scale brawl between those who support Dreyfus and those who wish to see him locked away.
Probably one of the best scenes Melies has shot that year, and possibly the next. The reporters are absolutely crazy, crabbing canes, and chairs, its get violent, it get so hectic in fact that the reports on the sidelines trying to stay out of the madness straight up run out of the building. Its an absolute precursor to the mass media frenzy reporting that is prevalent today and definitely foreshadows the sort of divided mentality that exists in american cable news, pitting two issues against each other for the ratings, this story was pure excitement, and it got people angry and involved. Stories like this gave birth to mass media, I can only think of a few stories that have the same effect in today’s landscape but they do exist, and its such a strange, almost surrealistic that something like this can be so relevant.
Above all this shows how important this issue was to the people of France.
SHOT 10 – The Court Martial at Rennes
The second to last scene is also the final one available online. its the longest episode in the film and probably the best directed. ]This scene is a complete chamber drama in it self, and from what historians have said, an almost exact recreation of the proceedings. Dreyfus is sentenced to ten years in prison, from which he will be pardoned in 1904, one year after Edwin S Porter made his most famous films, and 4 years before Griffith would direct his first film.
One of the only things truly remarkable about this episode are the lengths to which they go achieve the exact likeness of each individual involved, and sheer beauty and scale of the set design. This scene is time travel, sending you back to a world where extravagance was okay because imperialism was the law of the land. I would give anything to be able to sit inside this court room, the smell of oil cigars, the yelling, the must, you can smell history sometimes, and it gives you a longing to be a apart of it. Without artists like Melies, we wouldn’t have this extraordinary dimension crossing depiction of a world we will never know.
SHOT 11 – Dreyfus Leaving the Lycée for Jail
Sadly this episode is not available from the versions online, but the scene described, Dreyfus is walking through two lines of solders, once again defeated, at the end he meets with his legal council, who with a handshake wish him the best of luck
A pretty bleak ending but in the context of things, no one knew what was going to become of Dreyfus at the time of its release. Dreyfus received his ten year sentence in 1899, the same year the film came out, the ending needed to be uncertain to reflect a certain anger the public felt towards this whole scandal. Five years of being the most talked about scandal gives the story and everyone involved a special kind of fame and infamy, more interesting however is the fact that Melies made this while the event was going on in the real world, which is a special kind of realism that is probably the closest you can get to a documentary while still being a narrative.
I urge everyone to check out this film, ,its available on Youtube, its a treasure of Pre – 20th century cinema, that is not only a cinematic masterpiece but a masterpiece of journalism, that is a piece of journalism in itself but also an indictment its very nature as a piece of media.