Follow TV Tropes


Film / An Officer and a Spy

Go To
"If you're asking me if I appreciate Jews, my answer is no. If you're implying that I have a discriminating attitude I assure you I don't. Never."

"Soldiers! They degrade an innocent man! They dishonour an innocent man! Long live France! Long live the army!"
Alfred Dreyfus

An Officer and a Spy (French title J'accuse) is a French historical drama film written and directed by Roman Polański. It adapts the Robert Harris novel An Officer and a Spy, based on the notorious Dreyfus Affair that took France by storm at the end of the 19th century and in the early 1900s. Harris co-wrote the screenplay.

In 1895, French army officer Marie-Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin) is appointed chief of the army's intelligence section (Deuxième Bureau, service de renseignement militaire). He discovers that doctored evidence was used to convict Alfred Dreyfus (Louis Garrel), one of the few Jewish members of the French Army's general staff (in which antisemitic conspiracy theories abound), of passing military secrets to Imperial Germany.

Picquart, who can't stand lies and injustice in the army, decides to risk his career and his life, going against his hierarchy and struggling for almost a decade to expose the truth and liberate the wrongly convicted Dreyfus from the Devil's Island prison. Doing so, he gets help from some lawyers, journalists and politicians, who bring public attention to the affair.

The cast also includes Emmanuelle Seigner as Picquart's lover Pauline Monnier, Mathieu Amalric as Alphonse Bertillon and Vincent Grass as General Jean-Baptiste Billot.

The film came out in France on November 13, 2019. It won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Leclerc, Picquart's CO in Africa, since the Africa parts of the book were left out by way of Time Skip.
  • The Alcatraz: Devil's Island, the remote overseas penal colony off the coast of French Guiana where Dreyfus is sent.
  • Armies Are Evil: Picquart is pretty much the only figure of the French military who truly wants to stand for justice and honesty in the case of Dreyfus. Most of the others believe in antisemitic conspiracy theories and want the army to remain "clean" (of Jews and troubles) and the very idea of another scandal hitting it prompts them to churn out lies, forged evidence and hierarchy cover-ups to maintain the disgrace of Dreyfus. Dreyfus himself is the highest ranked Jewish person in the French army, and he had to struggle to get there given what the army's heads and his superiors think of his kind.
  • Artistic License – History: Alphonse Bertillon is presented as a graphology expert, while he wasn't one in Real Life (rather he was a criminologist who basically pioneered biometry). His antisemitic opinions on the Dreyfus case are still depicted however, and while the real experts who proved he was a fraud in graphology are Adapted Out, his Insane Troll Logic still mitigates this.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Though Dreyfus is released and allowed to rejoin the army, he is only pardoned, not officially cleared, and his time in prison is not considered service.
  • Clear My Name: Alfred Dreyfus and his family want to clear his name. Then Marie-Georges Picquart and several lawyers, politicians and journalists enter the fray to make the scandal known to the public and prove his innocence.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Picquart's time in North Africa from the book gets a Time Skip.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Basically anyone who blames "international Jewry" for anything that goes wrong.
  • Creator Cameo: Roman Polański appears as a one of the members of the Académie française who attend a concert Picquart goes to as well. He has a fake mustache.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Almost every army man in the film is an antisemite, and indeed the fact that Dreyfus is Jewish played a big part to make him suspicious once the military started looking for a mole. Homophobia is common, too.
  • Driven to Suicide: Commandant Hubert Henry kills himself in his prison cell after the forging of his evidence against Dreyfus is exposed.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: The Parisian military school where the Degradation of Dreyfus took place happens to stand near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and Roman Polanski didn't miss the occasion to make use of this to great effect.
  • The Fettered: Picquart has principles, standing for justice and honor within the army.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Picquart's first name is a composite, Marie-Georges, with "Marie" being feminine. This was pretty common in France up until about the 1950s.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Picquart doesn't like Jews, but he wants to prove the innocence of Dreyfus nonetheless.
  • Greedy Jew: Not played straight. Rather, a number of people in the army believe in corruption by "international Jewry" and are satisfied with Dreyfus being degraded and exiled, with some even actively trying to sweep Picquart's investigation under the rug and forging evidence to keep Dreyfus where he is.
  • The Handler: Commandant Henry is the handler for a prime source of intelligence, a cleaning woman who works in the German Embassy.
  • Historical Domain Character: Everyone in the film starting with Picquart, the most immediately recognizable ones being Dreyfus, Esterhazy, Georges Clemenceau and Emile Zola. There are missing key people from the Real Life Dreyfus Affair, however.
  • Honor Before Reason: Picquart stands for honor in the army, while "reason" would dictate him to give up on the Dreyfus case unless he wants to end up degraded and imprisoned as well, which eventually happens.
  • Insane Troll Logic: The first piece of evidence that is used against Dreyfus is proven to not have been written by him. The graphology expert accuses him nonetheless, stating that "Jewry" taught him how to hide his personal patterns when writing...
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: Like the novel, the film opens with a formal military ceremony, the "Degradation," in which Dreyfus is infamously stripped of his military insignia and his officer's sword is broken in two.
  • In the Back: Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy attacks Picquart in the streets after the latter made his accusations against him clear, trying to hit him on the head in the back with a cane. It backfires when Picquart proves to be a superior combatant, kicking his butt and humiliating him further with a one-liner.
  • J'accuse: The very French title, being about the Trope Namer affair, with the famous headline of Émile Zola's article in the newspaper L'Aurore.
  • Kangaroo Court: The military justice that was in motion in the first phase of the Dreyfus Affair used very shallow evidence against Dreyfus, up to and including antisemitic conspiracy theories. The efforts of several army heads later on, up to sweeping evidence of Dreyfus's innocence under the rug and forging some others to accuse him, turned the first revision trial into something of one as well.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Picquart, the main character and champion of Dreyfus's innocence, is a self-professed antisemite and has an affair with a married woman.
  • Let's Fight Like Gentlemen: Picquart provokes Henry in a sword duel to the first blood, and wins it. He denies one to Esterhazy, however.
  • Mal Mariée: Pauline Monnier doesn't love her husband (she got there by way of Arranged Marriage), and she has an affair with Picquart.
  • Manly Facial Hair: Picquart has a well-trimmed mustache like pretty much every man at the end of the 19th century and very early 20th century, and he's a Master Swordsman, given the way he beats Henry in a fencing duel and turns Esterhazy's attack in the streets against him.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: One of the most infamous cases in the history of France. Dreyfus is wrongly accused of being a Double Agent working for the Germans and it takes years to prove his innocence and acquit him.
  • The Mole: What Dreyfus is accused of being. Picquart finds out Esterhazy was the real mole.
  • Morton's Fork: Dreyfus points out at his trial that he's being ruled guilty if the spy's handwriting matches his, but also if it doesn't, because it is interpreted as Dreyfus altering his handwriting to not be caught. Bertillon replies "yes" to both without missing a beat.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: When the Dreyfus Affair is at its boiling point in the French public opinion, some anti-Dreyfus people start burning piles of the newspaper L'Aurore (which defends Dreyfus) and Emile Zola's books in the streets (Zola's Nana can be briefly glimpsed through the flames), then attack shops owned by Jews, even painting Stars of David on the shop frontages they don't wreck. Sound familiar?
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Set up, but subverted at Zola's trial when Henry and Boisdeffre talk about the letter that was the main evidence against Dreyfus, removing its state secrecy and allowing Picquart to denounce it publicly as a forgery. Zola is still declared guilty, and Dreyfus is declared guilty again by extension. It takes years for the government to reduce Dreyfus's sentence and then pardon him but they never admit to the miscarriage of justice.
  • Noble Bigot: Picquart admits he doesn't like Jews, but that doesn't stand in the way of his defense of the innocence of Dreyfus the slightest.
  • Reading The Enemy's Mail: Among the primary sources of information for the late 19th century French secret services, there's the interception of letters. It happens to Picquart when he starts outright going against his hierarchy.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: When Picquart's investigation on Esterhazy starts getting too close to the truth, his superiors first have him reassigned to garrison inspections in the German border, then to Algeria and Tunisia. Then they want to send him to the Sahara near the border with Tripolitania (now Libya) where he has high chances of being killed, and he decides to go back to France and face arrest instead.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Picquart is eventually pitted against his hierarchy, and still won't stop doing his best to prove the innocence of Dreyfus despite knowing the risks.
  • Time Skip: Several, mostly due to the years that the revision trials lasted.
  • Title Drop: The French title J'accuse is pronounced when the newspaper L'Aurore with Emile Zola's article and its famous headline is sold in the streets.
  • Token Minority: Played for Drama. Dreyfus's entire predicament comes from being "the only Jew in the building".
  • Wrecked Weapon: The film opens with a recreation of the infamous public degradation of Dreyfus, with an officer stripping him of his military grade insignias and breaking his officer's sword.