Just before the dawn of the twentieth century, movie pioneer Georges Méliès tore one of the biggest stories from French headlines and made a series of biographical sketches in support of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was framed for treason and exiled to Devil’s Island. The films themselves are as fascinating as their subject and are extraordinarily innovative to boot.
In order to give the case more context for the modern viewer, I will be reviewing three other Dreyfus pictures released in the English language market: The Life of Emile Zola, I Accuse and Prisoner of Honor.
A huge thanks to everyone who helped me research this monster, track down documents and films, translate from the French and otherwise assist. Christopher Bird, Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London, Kristen of Speakeasy, @rhaydde and many, many others. Your help is most appreciated!
A quick note before beginning: While my previous deep dive reviews have focused on famous epics, this film is not famous even to fans of Georges Méliès and the combined runtime of the surviving footage is a little over ten minutes. Nevertheless, it showcases bold innovation from its maker and it takes on one of the most controversial cases of the Belle Époque. I have long advocated for viewing Méliès as more than a magician filmmaker and creator of fantasy confections. In fact, he was both politically engaged and capable of far more depth than many viewers may realize.
And on another note: I am aware of the existence of An Officer and a Spy. I have nothing further to say about it for the present and future.
The Dreyfus Affair was originally an eleven-part series of short films that told the story of the hottest political and social justice story of the 1890s in France: The arrest, imprisonment and eventual re-trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. This story was huge and was followed closely by the world’s population and it’s easy to see why; it had everything: espionage, accusations of antisemitism, a faked escape from Devil’s Island, the biggest names in French literature taking sides, a celebrity author threatened with arrest…
The French audience Méliès was addressing would have been as aware of the ins and outs of the case as American viewers of the 1990s who kept up with the O.J. Simpson trial. As a result, viewers of the Méliès film series are thrown head first into the deep end of the case with zero explanation and because of this, I am opening up this review with a brief summation of the Dreyfus Affair. (I also recommend this handy timeline as a lot was happening.)
In 1894, the French government learned that an unknown French officer had sent a shopping list of military secrets to the German embassy (the list was known as “the bordereau” and I will be using that term throughout). The document was unsigned and gave only a few hints as to the writer’s identity but suspicion soon fell on Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an ambitious officer who was assigned to the General Staff.
An independently wealthy man married to an independently wealthy woman, bookish, reserved, socially awkward, introverted, precise in his duties, fastidious in his work and notably patriotic, espionage for the Germans would have been a very strange activity for Dreyfus. He liked the ladies but nothing out of the ordinary for a French military man of the period and certainly there was no hint of his falling into a honey trap. His family was Alsatian and when the province was annexed by the Prussians, his father unhesitatingly refused citizenship, remained a French subject and relocated to Switzerland.
However, there was one detail of Dreyfus’s background that caused his superiors to mark him as their number one suspect: he was a Jewish man. Worse, he was a Jewish man with no connections in the military’s upper echelon, no big political names backing him. In short, he could be kicked down and locked away with comparative impunity.
While public opinion was against him from the start, Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, and his elder brother, Mathieu, launched a passionate campaign to clear his name. Their tireless efforts paid off and they managed to win French intellectuals to his side, most notably Émile Zola whose J’Accuse…!, a public condemnation of Dreyfus’s infamous treatment, remains one of the most influential open letters in history. France was divided into Dreyfusards, who declared a miscarriage of justice, and anti-Dreyfusards, who believed him to be guilty.
In the name of “fairness” some revisionists have tried to downplay antisemitism’s role in Dreyfus’s infamous court-martial (“Not ALL the anti-Dreyfusards were anti-Semites! They just really got into an antisemitic cause! Whoopsy-doodle!”) but they are fortunately in the minority. The case is an infamous example of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe and it remains a chilling prelude to far, far worse events.
Georges Méliès was not the only person to take up the Dreyfus cause onscreen but his films are certainly the most famous Dreyfusard motion pictures made while the events were actually happening. Unfortunately, they can come off as a bit opaque to viewers not in the know.
During this period of French film history, the images on the screen would almost certainly have been accompanied by spoken narration; the events presented would have been expanded on and explained. While the narration scripts for some Méliès films have survived (most notably A Trip to the Moon), I have never seen any for The Dreyfus Affair. (There were synopses published in the catalog of the series’ British distributor.) Therefore, I am taking the liberty of “narrating” each sequence myself, presenting the events and characters who may be unfamiliar to the modern viewer. This is not only in the spirit of the Méliès style, it is also a way to present this complicated case in manageable chunks. Obviously, I am going to be simplifying a lot but if you are interested in learning the whole sordid case, you have literally hundreds of books to choose from. I like Dreyfus: A Family Affair, 1789-1945 by Michael Burns.
I also hope to emphasize the depths of Méliès’ political leanings. His films are often trivialized as cute fantasies but there were often hidden depths lurking beneath the magic. In the case of his Dreyfus film series, the politics have not been obscured by fairies and airships but by time. His references may pass by modern viewers but I want to elaborate and showcase his political statements and show that he was making an impassioned and intelligent pro-Dreyfus case. (By the way, most sources state that Méliès himself played Dreyfus in this series.)
Admittedly, the waters have been muddied by Méliès himself. Thirty years after completing the series, Méliès claimed that he took no sides in the picture and that the series was banned due to extreme violence breaking out wherever it was shown. We will tackle the latter claim further in the review but as for claims of neutrality… Well, reality was on the side of the Dreyfus supporters but Méliès goes a bit further than merely reporting the facts, as we see in the films that make up the series.
Why Méliès would claim neutrality is a bit of a mystery but with an official ban on any Dreyfus material in place since 1915 and even former supporters of Dreyfus wanting the matter closed lest it spark more antisemitism, we can say that there was no particular impetus for many people to make pro-Dreyfus statements in the France of 1930.
Before the Action
The scanty evidence against Dreyfus was the bordereau recovered from the German embassy and intercepted saucy correspondence between Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the Imperial German military attaché, and his Italian counterpart and probable lover, Alessandro Panizzardi, that referred to “that scoundrel D.” (Which, of course, could refer to a surname, given name, nickname or pet name.) Oh, and a badly decoded telegram. Weak sauce.
The investigating officers of the French army ignored the obvious prime suspect, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and became obsessed with proving the guilt of Dreyfus by any means. As brought out earlier, Dreyfus was the world’s most boring human and there was no aspect of his life that would indicate a penchant for espionage. Some imagination was needed.
Major Armand du Paty de Clam, who was intensely involved in tracking down the author of the bordereau, studied the spy’s list, declared that the army was correct to target Dreyfus and planned to trap Dreyfus through his own handwriting and this first sequence shows how this scheme took place.
Part One: Arrest of Dreyfus
Captain Dreyfus was summoned for what he assumed was an inspection. He was met by du Paty de Clam, who feigned an injury to his hand and asked Dreyfus if he would be good enough to write a letter for him. Dreyfus obliged and du Paty de Clam carefully dictated words that were found on the list of military secrets. Once he had a sufficient sample of his target’s handwriting, du Paty de Clam declared that he was under arrest and turned the horrified Dreyfus over to Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, one of the first officers to target the perfectly innocent captain.
As befitted his profession, Dreyfus was provided with a loaded pistol by du Paty de Clam; he was expected to shoot himself like an officer and a gentleman. His accusers had to know how scanty their evidence was and so a convenient suicide would have saved them a lot of trouble. Dreyfus stubbornly refused to oblige and was taken into custody.
Méliès presents this opening scene in a straightforward manner that may seem cluttered to the modern viewer. It’s worth remembering that Méliès had many of his films hand-tinted and that what seems to be a busy composition is far more harmonious when the original color is restored. Certainly, some emphasis on the pistol offered to Dreyfus would have made the scene more immediate.
Méliès had been using the services of Elisabeth’s Thuillier’s team of film colorists since 1897 and it is their work that you see in the recovered hand-colored version of A Trip to the Moon. Seeing the quality of the color and how it enhances the cinematography of Méliès, I wish that all of his films had been preserved in color but, alas, a great many silents were duplicated onto black and white stock, their original color schemes lost forever.
That being said, this first sequence is a striking introduction to the case with the main participant walking into an unfair trap and resisting the pressure to either confess or kill himself. At this period in film history, an insert of the actual document would have been very unusual indeed but then again, audiences of the time would have known well the contents and appearance of the bordereau if they were following the case at all.
Incidentally, now would be a good time to discuss the document that caused all the trouble. The bordereau was written in a hand that resembled Dreyfus’s somewhat was not an exact match. That didn’t stop du Paty de Clam from proclaiming a match and he was backed up by Alphonse Bertillon, who went so far as to claim the mismatches between the bordereau and known samples of Dreyfus’s hand proved him guilty because, like, psychology and stuff. Here is a photograph of the document (the original was destroyed during the German occupation of France during the Second World War).
In his 1898 book on the Dreyfus case, Fred C. Conybeare compares the handwriting of Esterhazy directly against that found on the bordereau. It is so similar that I have taken the liberty of highlighting Esterhazy’s handwriting in green so that it will be easier for you to compare.
And here is a sample of Dreyfus’s handwriting.
As you can see, the samples show some similarities but there are also enough differences to keep one from calling Dreyfus the author. Esterhazy’s writing, on the other hand, is a perfect match for the bordereau.
Also, in addition to all the evidence against Esterhazy, who closely associated with German officials, expressed open hatred for France, was a heavy drinker and deeply in debt, Central Casting couldn’t have found a more obvious spy. Which one of these men would you peg as a sneaky snoop?
Part Two: The Degradation of Dreyfus
This sequence is, unfortunately, missing from the release version I viewed but anyone who has seen a military picture with a 19th century setting will likely recognize the scene. Degradation refers to the act of removing metals, buttons, braids and other finery from the disgraced officer’s uniform and ends with the symbolic breaking of his sword.
Dreyfus was court martialed and despite the utter lack of motive and a secret dossier that Dreyfus’s lawyer was prevented from viewing (it was only made fully public in 2013), he was convicted. After his court martial, or kangaroo court to be more accurate, Dreyfus underwent the humiliation of the degradation ceremony and declared his innocence while a crowd spat on him and screamed antisemitic slurs. Finally, a photograph of him wearing his torn uniform was taken and distributed to the general public, a modern addition to an already demeaning spectacle.
The sequence would likely have been one of the most inflammatory in the picture with Dreyfusards insulted on his behalf and anti-Dreyfusards cheering on as they perceived justice being served.
(The Degradation of Dreyfus is listed as part of a 2008 program by the Cinémathèque Française so here’s hoping it will be reunited with the other Dreyfus sequences in the future.)
Part Three: Devil’s Island—Within the Palisade
For his alleged crimes, Dreyfus was shipped off to Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. Noted as a harsh prison with appalling conditions, Dreyfus’s treatment was even more severe than most penal colony prisoners. He was kept in complete isolation with his guards refusing to speak and his letters to and from Lucie censored.
Again, Méliès takes a straightforward approach to the material with Dreyfus attempting to speak to his guard but being rebuffed. He finds comfort in his letters instead. Méliès went for a more realistic approach with the severe wooden barricade in the background and the result is a claustrophobic design.
Part Four: Dreyfus Put in Irons
Besides his wife, Lucie, Dreyfus’s greatest advocate was his older brother, Mathieu. Personable and intelligent, Mathieu had a keen brain for marketing and hype and did his best to keep his brother’s case in the public eye. However, interest began to wane once Dreyfus was locked away on Devil’s Island and so Mathieu, recognizing that once the public forgot about his brother the chances of a retrial were gone, took a desperate gamble. He planted a false news item claiming that Dreyfus had escaped custody.
The ploy accomplished its intended mission of putting Dreyfus back on the font pages but it had the unfortunate side effect of increasing security around the prisoner. Even though Dreyfus had never escaped or even attempted it, his guards opted to shackle him to his bed.
Again, this is a straightforward scene emphasizing the injustice that Dreyfus was enduring. We are not told why he is shackled to the bed (1899 audiences would have known that already, remember) but it is clear that our sympathies are meant to be with him as he is the only character emoting.
This is another case where the original colors of the film would have likely enhanced the scene. We might have had a blue tint overall to set the mood for nighttime and then had the guards’ lantern colored yellow.
A lot went on between these sections of the film. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart was assigned to military intelligence (an oxymoron, obviously) and soon discovered that flimsiness of the case against Dreyfus. An anti-Semite himself, Picquart was nonetheless driven to prove the innocence of Dreyfus out of concern that the real culprit, Esterhazy, could do further damage. For his troubles, Picquart was transferred to Tunisia and Esterhazy was declared innocent lest news of the original bungling leak out.
Mathieu and Lucie Dreyfus continued their tireless advocacy and they found a powerful ally in Emile Zola, the famous author and famous rabble rouser. He wrote what is probably the most famous op-ed in history, J’Accuse…!, which laid out the Dreyfus affair and made it clear that the highest levels of the French military had railroaded an innocent man. Zola was put on trial for libel and convicted of saying mean things about the army but fled to England before he could be taken to prison and continued his pro-Dreyfus campaign. Picquart was also in legal peril for revealing military secrets.
Also, in the midst of all this, Picquart and Hubert-Joseph Henry, who had forged documents in order to strengthen the case against Dreyfus and block Picquart’s investigation, fought a duel because why the heck not at this point? This event would not be complete without at least one duel.
Part Five: Suicide of Colonel Henry
A competent investigator finally arrived on the scene in the form of Major Cuignet. He discovered Henry’s rather sloppy forgery and this time action was taken against the conspirators and not the Dreyfusards. Henry confessed to the forgeries and cut his own throat in his cell in late August of 1898.
As is often the case with high profile suicides, whispers of murder have cropped up in this case. Méliès presents the death of Henry as suicide, complete with a blood-stained throat-slitting. Still, one has to believe that this sequence would have been considered pretty graphic in 1899 and perhaps not entirely in the best of taste.
Part Six: Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon
With public sentiment now on the side of Dreyfus, Henry dead and the conspiracy unraveling, Dreyfus was finally granted a new trial and returned to French soil on July 1, 1899.
This is one of the more striking sequences in the collection because Méliès makes use of innovative special effects to create a lightning storm above Dreyfus. (Disclaimer: Not saying this is the first artificial lightning, just an early and attractive example.) It’s quite impressive and does much to create a stormy mood for the chaos that was to follow.
Part Seven: Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes
Dreyfus was transferred to a cell at Rennes in anticipation of his retrial. While there isn’t much that happens to break ground as far as the history is concerned, this scene contains what reviewers of the time would have described as “heart interest.”
Since idealizing Dreyfus and making him as sympathetic as possible was the goal of the Dreyfusards, Dreyfus is portrayed as being in good spirits and both hale and hearty. In fact, he was ill from his long confinement and bouts of fever and his diminished appearance would cause some issues later on…
Part Eight: The Attempt Against the Life of Maître Labori
Fernand Labori was on Dreyfus’s new defense team and he was seen as one of the most deadly orators in a courtroom setting. His powers of persuasion were feared by the anti-Dreyfusards, so much so that an attempt was made on his life on August 19, 1899.
As Venita Datta brings out in the essay The Dreyfus Affair as National Theater, one of the aspects of Labori’s shooting that brought out strong emotions was the fact that passersby did not initially stop to aid the wounded man. Dreyfsards believed that this was evidence that the locals were sheltering the culprit, a charge that was vehemently denied. Méliès emphasizes this aspect of the event, with Labori weakly crying for help as pedestrians casually stroll past. The director’s intent is clear: to ignore the wounded man was a deliberate act and not a mere crime of ignorance.
Some sources state that Labori was a close friend of Méliès but I have not found anything definitive. In any case, the attempted assassination would have been enough to enrage anyone even mildly sympathetic to the Dreyfus cause. This would have been a highly controversial bit of footage at the time because emotions were running so high.
Part Nine: The Fight of Reporters at the Lycée
Dreyfus was retried at Lycée de Rennes and this scene depicts a violent struggle between his defenders and his detractors. Without a doubt, it is also the most dazzling sequence in the entire film. Méliès has his cast assembled in tight formation but as the fight breaks out, the actors are forced by the close quarters to rush the camera.
The result is an unusually dynamic sequence for the time and one of the more intense scenes filmed by Méliès over the course of his career. It is this sequence that first impressed me when I saw this picture and what made me want to cover it in detail. The sheer kinetic energy is infectious and must have been a powerful reminder of the power of cinema.
Parts Ten and Eleven: The Court Martial at Rennes
The second trial was the first time many of Dreyfus’s supporters had seen him in the flesh and some expressed disappointment at his diminished appearance. Perhaps it is only with the advent of candid photographs that we began to accept that public figures did not always behave like living statues. Dreyfus, after a long stint of tortuous solitary confinement, was expected to show the bored patience of the martyrs in religious paintings.
The toxic stoicism of the time would cause further damage as young soldiers returned home from the First World War with “shell shock” that nobody knew how to deal with. In contrast, Dreyfus’s family was just glad to have him home alive, which had been their one and only goal.
Dreyfusard Charles Peguy stated that “We were prepared to die for Dreyfus but Dreyfus was not.” With supporters like these, who needs enemies?
This is one of the more static scenes in the series and one of the longest. The scene really showcases how narration would be helpful because the shot was clearly intended to be accompanied by some kind of courtroom.
Part Twelve: Dreyfus Leaving the Lycée for Jail
Alas, another missing sequence but a scene of defeat. Dreyfus was found guilty in the second trial; the military was not yet ready to admit their guilt. This is also where Méliès’ Dreyfus film cycle ends, though there was more to the story.
Dreyfus was offered a pardon but the thing about pardons is that by accepting them, the accused is in effect accepting their guilt. Many Dreyfusards were horrified that their symbol would do such a thing but Dreyfus feared a return to Devil’s Island would kill him and he was probably right. He did eventually clear his name and was reinstated in the army. He made the rank of lieutenant colonel and saw action in Verdun during the First World War. His health never recovered from his ordeal but he passed away in 1935.
The participants in this misadventure had varying ends. Zola died of suffocation from a blocked chimney, most of the participants in the military conspiracy received clemency, Esterhazy fled France and lived out his life in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, of all places, with a French military pension and any moneys he may have received from writing antisemitic screeds.
We do not know why Méliès ended the Dreyfus series where he did. Perhaps he was among those disappointed by what they perceived as Dreyfus’s surrender. Perhaps censorship concerns stopped him. Perhaps he felt that his work was done with the Dreyfus affair. Perhaps the controversy had exhausted him.
It is difficult to communicate just how deeply the case exposed the fractures in French society. It divided France along political and religious lines with the secular Dreyfusards and predominantly Catholic anti-Dreyfusards drawing up battle lines. Georges Méliès took a pro-Dreyfus position in the film but the matter remained (and remains) controversial. Some defenders of Dreyfus had take-backsies later, most notably G.K. Chesterton whose descent into antisemitism is well-documented. Other big artistic names in anti-Dreyfusard circles included Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Paul Valéry and Henri Rouart. Pierre-Auguste Renoir avoided making public statements on the matter but was given to antisemitic rants in the privacy of his home.
Jules Verne, a passionate anti-Dreyfusard, engaged in pitch battles with his son, Michel, who took Dreyfus’s side. I have seen feeble attempts to defend Verne by claiming that he used Dreyfus’s imprisonment on Devil’s Island as an inspiration for The Kip Brothers and that, anyway, everyone thought Dreyfus was guilty early on. The thing is, Verne never once publicly repudiated anti-Dreyfusard sentiments and, in fact, was an enthusiastic member of an extreme anti-Dreyfus organization, Ligue de la patrie française. Plus, lifting the idea of a Devil’s Island sentence from the headlines does not a sympathizer make. Sometimes our favorites believed horrible things. We’re grownups, we can deal with this without resorting to fairy tales. (The notes found in the English translation of The Kip Brothers are quite valuable to anyone wishing to research this matter further.)
There are, unfortunately, even cases of modern historians falling over themselves to disassociate the antisemitism at the heart of the Dreyfus Affair from the Holocaust and I take great exception. The notion that it was mere coincidence that genocide was attempted against a people demonized and openly despised in Europe is preposterous and not worthy of any serious argument. It is like trying to divorce the Diamond Necklace Affair from the French Revolution: why in the world would such a thing even be attempted.
And this is the point where we are often admonished to “look at context” and think of the fee-fees of the poor anti-Semites, who couldn’t help themselves. Hogwash! The public record of the case was remarkably complete by 1899, as the 1898 publication of the bordereau proves. Méliès, Zola and other notables (not to mention a healthy portion of the British press) managed to get on the right side of history, as did millions of other French citizens.
I agree that it would be wrong to, say, admonish a Viking village for failing to embrace veganism but it is perfectly reasonable to give old-timers a black eye for taking up the anti-Dreyfusard banner. This paternalistic view of past generations (“They didn’t know any better!”) is arrogant in the extreme and fails to take into account how studied and discussed the Dreyfus Affair was as it was happening. In short, antisemitism was and is a choice.
Méliès was not the only filmmaker who had adapted the Dreyfus Affair for the screen. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, Société Française de Mutoscope et Biographe, Lubin and Pathé Frères all produced their own Dreyfus-themed films or film series in the 1890s.
Some of these films contained footage of the real participants. Société Française de Mutoscope et Biographe managed to get footage of Dreyfus in his prison exercise yard, as well as Lucie and Mathieu Dreyfus leaving Rennes. Most, however, seem to have been reenactments and there are even a few comedic sketches in the mix. What this proves more than anything is that the whole world was talking about Alfred Dreyfus. (By the way, Dreyfus had been sent to Devil’s Island a year before the first projected picture shows took place.)
Alas, I have not seen these other pictures (would love to!) but there was a very fine article written in the Autumn 1984 issue Sight & Sound by Stephen Bottomore that covers the history of the torn-from-the-headlines Dreyfus films and how the material was obtained by means both fair and foul (mostly foul).
By the way, and getting back to Méliès, The Dreyfus Affair is sometimes listed as the first censored film, I am very cautious about pinning the first ribbon on anything. And while some sources claim that the picture was banned outright in France soon after its release, there is really only evidence that it was banned in certain locations within France by the local authorities, which isn’t the same thing. In my opinion, this rush to name firsts has ignored the fact that this is a high-quality, innovative picture that deserves to be famous for its excellence and not any dubious claims of firsties.
The Dreyfus Affair is one of Georges Méliès’s most exciting films and it’s a pity that it isn’t better known. It may not have space travel or leaping imps or airships or fairies but it is nonetheless imaginatively filmed and it places itself securely on the right side of history. It’s nice to have an early film that demonstrates how forward thinking some cinema’s pioneers truly were.
This film is essential viewing for any silent film fan and belongs in film history classes as an example of how varied Méliès’s talent was.
Where can I see it?
This was not the last of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on the big screen. As stated above, the French government issued a general ban on Dreyfus films in 1915 but that didn’t stop other countries from trying their hands at the tale. Richard Oswald produced and directed a German adaptation in 1930 with Fritz Kortner as Dreyfus and venerable baddie Fritz Rasp as Major du Paty de Clam. (You can see them work together in Warning Shadows.) This was followed by a 1931 British adaptation with Cedric Hardwicke as Dreyfus.
Hollywood had not yet tried its hand at a talkie Dreyfus film but all that changed when Warner Bros. discovered that audiences would pay good money and critics would use good ink if they would just put Paul Muni in whiskers.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Paul Muni is probably best remembered as the star of the original Scarface but he had scored a biopic hit for Warner Bros. with The Story of Louis Pasteur and the studio hoped that lightning would strike twice. Emile Zola was one of France’s greatest authors and his advocacy for Dreyfus had been one of the crowning moments of his career. Zola’s Nana had last been filmed just ahead of the Code and it would not be advisable to adapt such a red hot work during the Breen era but what about the book’s author? Ah, now that’s different. (Actually, Breen was rather fussy about bringing up Nana and would only agree to the plan if Nana was made out to be no fun at all. He once described Zola as “a filthy Frenchman who grew rich writing pornographic literature.”)
The Life of Emile Zola is very much what one would expect from a biopic: we see Zola’s early friendship with Cezanne, his success with Nana, life during the Franco-Prussian War, etc. Everything zips along at that choppy fade-and-five-years-pass pace that has marred many a biopic. But this is all homework in anticipation of the main event.
Zola was well known for his activity with social justice issues but his defense of Dreyfus is probably the most exciting chapter of his life and the filmmakers recognized this fact. Persuaded to take up the case, a formerly reluctant Zola becomes a zealot and his J’Accuse piece as well as his trial are portrayed as single-handedly saving Dreyfus from Devil’s Island. Sure, reality was more nuanced but the idea was to showcase Paul Muni and that the film does.
I have to admit that Muni is a bit of a hit-or-miss performer for me. Some sequences in pictures like Scarface and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang are as powerful and modern as anything you could hope to see. Other scenes show Muni falling into the trap of fine acting and perhaps coming off as a bit self-conscious in his performance. In The Life of Emile Zola, the later sequences are marred somewhat by the Muppet-like speech patterns that sometimes afflict actors in heavy old age makeup.
Still, he does manage some good moments with Zola discovering that after years of struggles he has written a bestseller, a wistful reunion with Cezanne (though the film passes over the fact that Cezanne was an ardent anti-Dreyfusard) and the courtroom scene in which he must defend his words from legal attack. It was enough to net him critical accolades and a Best Actor nomination.
(Incidentally, a recent co-biopic of Cezanne and Zola manages to barely touch on the Dreyfus affair, per reviews. I didn’t track this film down because, let’s face it, this piece has become monstrous and if I added one more research rabbit hole, my brain would likely explode.)
The screenplay does let Muni down a bit. In my opinion, the author’s evolution from hungry firebrand to fat, satisfied and complacent bestselling novelist deserves some examination but the film simply skips from Zola exposing the military to Zola worrying more about antique collecting than the railroading of Dreyfus.
For me, the real draw of The Life of Emile Zola is Joseph Schildkraut’s finely tuned performance as Dreyfus. While perhaps not the most accurate portrayal of the man—the genuine article had none of Schildkraut’s smooth charm—it is nonetheless a dynamic bit of acting and he deserved his Oscar like few actors before or since. (Schildkraut exceled at playing victims of antisemitism with dignity and sensitivity, from Otto Frank to the first of his two appearances in The Twilight Zone.)
Schildkraut’s character also has a far more steady trajectory than Zola. He starts as a happy family man, a doting father and a loving husband, as well as a capable and ambitious officer who wears his uniform with pride. Everything he cares about, from family to career, is snatched away due to laziness and prejudice and he must keep himself alive as his champions try to free him. Pure martyr (the film curiously peppers itself with crucifixion imagery) but Schildkraut’s perceptive acting pays dividends for his character and the film. The degradation scene in which he fights back tears as he is publicly humiliated and stripped of his hard-won rank is worth an Oscar all by itself.
Gale Sondergaard also does fine work as Lucie Dreyfus, primary defender of her husband and noble in the face of the French military’s bullying tactics. Both Schildkraut and Sondergaard are probably better known for sophisticated villainy to most viewers so it is a double pleasure to see them handle these sympathetic roles with style and grace.
Finally, the Warner Bros. company dug into their roster of character actors to staff the military officers responsible for Dreyfus’s woes and the results are quite impressive. Silent veteran Robert Warwick is particularly good as Henry, who was left holding the bag, and Robert Barrat (star of the recently released Whispering Shadows) is suitably sleazy as Esterhazy. Henry O’Neill is a noble Picquart, which is perhaps a slight stretch but the performance is good.
The direction by William (formerly Wilhelm) Dieterle gets the job done but there are certain biopic conventions that must be followed. These include both war and authorship via montage and the general whiplash-inducing passage of time. That being said, the film looks good, the performances generally work and those are the most important things in a picture of this type. It certainly impressed everyone who mattered in 1937 and won Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following year but its reputation is kinda… eh? Middle of the pack for a Best Picture winner, I guess? It certainly has its flaws.
The film is the expected mishmash of accents found in Hollywood costume films of the time with characters sounding like they originated from Paris to Omaha, Nebraska. (The Scarlet Empress, in contrast, cleverly has the German-accented performers play Germans and the Russian characters are played with assertively American accents, a rather effective artifice.)
Dreyfus was said to speak French with the distinct Germanic flavor that would have been expected from a son of Alsace and Schildkraut’s light Austrian accent proves perfect for the job of marking the captain as an outsider. He speaks well but he does not speak like a native and this detail would have landed so much better if the rest of the cast had gotten their voices in line.
I could complain about the inaccurate typefaces on the newspapers but… Oh what the heck, I will. Sorry to be one of THOSE people but I am weak. I hereby lodge my complaint. French newspapers in the nineteenth century did not use Cooper Black or Futura. The end.
On the more serious side of things, the film has been accused of playing coy with the part antisemitism played in Dreyfus’s conviction (it certainly was not as forward about it as it could have been) and that, due to pressure from the German government, it does not once mention that Dreyfus was Jewish.
I don’t like to bring up The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand because it is so unreliable but, alas, it is used as a source in many articles and books, some of them describing the cuts to The Life of Emile Zola so it cannot really be ignored.
The Collaboration puts forward a rather dubious theory that Hollywood moguls, well, collaborated with the Third Reich and one incident used to prove this point is centered on The Life of Emile Zola.
The pertinent passage from The Collaboration sets the stage. In February of 1937, Dr. Georg Gyssling, the German consul in Hollywood, placed a call to Warner Bros. to inquire about the announced Dreyfus films. The book states that an unnamed associate producer took the call even though he was “under no obligation” to do so. The book then immediately lists cuts made to The Life of Emile Zola, which removed all references to Dreyfus being Jewish from the spoken dialogue.
The producer who spoke to Gyssling was Henry Blanke and he is quoted as saying that he could not avoid taking the calls with the German Consul as he was quite persistent. Gyssling wanted to set up an in-person meeting with Blanke but Blanke “succeeded in telling him” that the Dreyfus case was just a tiny portion of the overall film and he believed that Gyssling had accepted this explanation and would finally go away.
The name of Henry Blanke is not included in the main body of the text and is instead tucked away in an endnote but it’s worth discussing his background. Blanke had been born in Germany and was tightly ensconced in Hollywood’s German emigre set; he had arrived with Lubitsch and had brought Dieterle to Warner Bros. As a fluent speaker of German and the man who had been in charge of German co-productions at Warner Bros., his agreeing to take Gyssling’s call seems to me to be less sinister and more a case of “I’m German, I speak German, I’ll speak to him.”
I should emphasize that Henry Blanke is by no means an obscure figure in film history, working as he did on so many Warner Bros. classics. (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Maltese Falcon, The Sea Wolf, etc.) Further, he was extremely hands-on during the production of The Life of Emile Zola and took the integrity of the project seriously.
One fact is immediately clear after watching The Life of Emile Zola: Henry Blanke lied to Gyssling. Point blank fibbed. Instead of being only a small part of the picture, Dreyfus case takes up the majority of the two-hour film from the thirty-minute mark onward. Last time I checked, ¾ of something is not a minor portion of the whole. Blanke was the associate producer, he would have known this since he was in charge of overseeing the adaptation of the screenplay and it was far enough along for specific dialogue cuts. Please also note that Blanke used the phrase “succeeded in telling” in reference to the Dreyfus case’s allegedly unimportant part in The Life of Emile Zola. I don’t pretend to know Henry Blanke’s speech patterns intimately but “succeeded” seems to be a very strange turn of phrase unless one is attempting to convince somebody of something that is not true. Like, say, assuring the German consul that Dreyfus is in, like, two minutes of the film, tops. (Wink.)
My personal take on the matter is that Henry Blanke was being pestered by Gyssling, who could not be told off, and so he got rid of him by telling a fib. This is backed up by the fact that he did not wish to meet Gyssling and that he specifically states that he spoke to him because he could not avoid it. It is likely that Blanke may have also had to answer similar questions from French authorities as films about the Dreyfus Affair had been banned since 1915 and that ban would not be lifted until after the Second World War. In any case, Blanke lied to and manipulated the German consul and that’s what I call heroic.
(Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros.’s Campaign Against Nazism by Michael E. Birdwell brings out that French Premier Leon Blum, a Dreyfusard himself whose interest in politics was sparked by the case, discouraged the film’s production because he feared re-igniting antisemitic violence. I should note that Birdwell states that the removal of Jewish references in the picture were done at Blum’s request as a safeguard against further violence.)
Let’s pivot back to the question of how much Dreyfus was originally intended to be in the Warner Bros. “Dreyfus picture” compared to what finally made it in. The questions that I feel deserve further explanation: Was The Life of Emile Zola intended to focus on Dreyfus instead of Zola and what was its working title before the Gyssling call and the final naming decision? In short, was it more Dreyfus-centric and if so, how much?
America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry by Daniel Eagan brings out that the film had been pitched in 1936 as a follow up to the successful collaboration between Muni and Dieterle, The Story of Louis Pasteur, which had been released the same year. Zola was always intended to be the viewpoint figure with his defense of Dreyfus presented as the main story and crowning achievement of a brilliant career.
Helpfully, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz uses The Life of Emile Zola as an example of the efficiency of Warner Bros. and states that the film was first conceived in early 1936 with a treatment by screenwriters Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg submitted in June of that year. It was titled Emile Zola: The Conscience of Humanity and focused on the Dreyfus case with the author’s early literary successes providing the backdrop.
This is backed up by an October 14, 1936 issue of Variety, which states that a “Dreyfus picture” was in production and that it would primarily focus on Zola’s hand in the matter with Muni in the lead role. “Zola’s fight against corrupt politics will be portrayed as was Pasteur’s fight against disease” the article breathlessly states. A November 14, 1936 issue of Motion Picture Herald claims that Muni had been deciding between Zola and Danton to follow up his success as Pasteur and questions whether the star is being typecast. The December 19, 1936 issue of the same magazine lists “The Story of Emile Zola” as an upcoming release from Warner Bros. The December 17, 1936 issue of Film Daily informs us that the “Story” title was a change from “The Truth is on the March.”
Obviously, the title was already giving the creative team fits well before the Gyssling call but was almost to its final form—which included Zola’s name and NOT that of Dreyfus— by December of 1936. And we have definitively proven that the emphasis on Zola with the Dreyfus case as the grand finale had been decided from the very beginning. Certainly, it is highly unlikely that Paul Muni, a bigger, pricier name at the time than Joseph Schildkraut, would have been cast as Zola and not either Dreyfus brother or Picquart if Dreyfus was indeed intended to be the star of the show with Zola as a secondary player. (Schildkraut had settled into supporting roles and had not had his name above the title in at least three years.) And why would Warner tilt with Breen over the inclusion of a Nana reference if it was supposed to be a 100% Dreyfus picture?
Now let’s circle back to those cuts that removed references to Jewishness in the spoken dialogue. There were indeed cuts to The Life of Emile Zola but, according to historians Felicia Herman and Thomas Schatz, they were dictated by Joseph Breen. Obviously, there is a difference between taking orders directly from the German consul and taking orders from the head of Production Code Administration who was egged on by the German consul. And it’s also possible that known anti-Semite and anti-Zolaite Breen, who once described the Jews he met in Hollywood as “probably, the scum of the scum of the earth” came up with the idea for the cuts all by his lonesome. Whatever the case, I have yet to see evidence that Gyssling or any other German made direct contact with any of the upper Warner Bros. management regarding the Zola picture. Point A does not align with point B once you look at actual facts. The possibility of additional pressure from Leon Blum’s government, albeit for far more benevolent reasons, also cannot be ignored.
One claim I notice cropping up again and again in various sources is that that “Religion: Jew” scene is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment—a second or a fraction of one—but the dossier appears in the middle of the film and is on screen for a full five seconds (I used the venerable one Mississippi, two Mississippi method… if you don’t think this makes a difference, ask a bull rider) with a character’s finger leading the audience to that all-important two-word line, which is framed dead center and written in slightly larger text than the surrounding letters. “I wonder how he ever became a member of the General Staff?” For contrast, the newspaper headline announcing France’s defeat with a total of four lines is shown onscreen for seven seconds.
Further, this film was designed to be seen on the big screen, there would have been no squinting at the television or smartphone in 1937. It’s important to consider not only the perspectives of period audiences but the circumstances under which they would have encountered the film. One would have to be rather nearsighted to miss which section the film was emphasizing. Could it have been more overt? Of course. Should it have been more overt? Yes, oh yes. Was it entirely erased? No. Although, it should be noted, the lack of any verbal mention of Jews was commented on during the film’s initial release by sources like The Jewish Chronicle. I should also state that Thomas Schatz is one of very few historians to catch exactly what director William Dieterle was doing with the scene. (“Dieterle did highlight the anti-Semitism issue with a bit of telltale camera work.”) A veteran of silent film who had worked with the brilliant Paul Leni, the “Iron Stove” was just the man to get the point across when the spoken word was forbidden.
Long story short: There seems to have been some lily-painting going on and descriptions of the scene often do not match what actually appears on the screen to a bizarre degree. (It’s on DVD, people.) While the cuts were wrong, the dossier shot was absolutely not an afterthought.
The “Religion: Jew” scene was slated for cutting but was allowed to remain in the finished film. Who saved the dossier scene? Henry Blanke? Perhaps. He took this picture very seriously. I’m sure Paul Muni and Joseph Schildkraut would have fought for it as well. Veterans of the Yiddish stage, openly and proudly Jewish at a time when romantic leads would hide their heritage and not afraid to speak their minds, both men would have understood the significance of the Dreyfus Affair and likely would have wanted to preserve the last reference to his Jewishness.
Further, as an Austrian and an actor in both his home country and Germany, Schildkraut would have likely kept up with the dark happenings of the Third Reich. Joseph Schildkraut wrote My Father and I, a co-biography of himself his father, legendary actor Rudolph Schildkraut. Joseph stated that his father had passed away in 1930 and three years later, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered a life-size portrait of the great performer to be publicly destroyed.
The Dreyfus Affair would have been familiar to audiences of 1937 and when one digs into the case, there are relatively few examples of the French officers and officials involved announcing “I shall now be racist in my racist way and frame Dreyfus racistly!” Rather, they used euphemisms, hints, winks, willful blindness and unspoken orders to accomplish their dirty work, which is exactly what is shown in the picture. No less racist but a way of achieving plausible deniability and, frankly, the way prejudice often works in the real world.
Finally, if Warner Bros. were really in the pocket of Gyssling, why would The Life of Emile Zola have been made at all? We already know that Muni was eyeing the role of Danton instead of Zola and French Revolution pictures were hot stuff on the heels of MGM’s smash hit version of A Tale of Two Cities (1935). Seems to have been a far better option for any “don’t offend the Nazis” plans.
Any discussion of the coyness in mentioning Dreyfus’s heritage must include the fact that issues of assimilation and the mainstreaming of antisemitism were important elements in Jewish life during this period. There are also issues of political cowardice among the film moguls (which was an enormous factor) and the ever-vigilant Joseph Breen but I believe assimilation is not discussed enough in the context of moviemaking.
It should also be noted that the topic of assimilation vs. separation was intensely discussed and debated. Nearly every serious silent film about Jewish culture, whether made in a Hollywood studio or by a Yiddish film company, at least touched on the topic and most centered on it. East and West, Yizkor, His People, The Ancient Law… The humorous novel Menahem Mendl by Sholem Aleichem, which was adapted into Jewish Luck, has a long exchange between characters discussing the Dreyfus case and questioning why he bothered to join the French army at all but this, along with the plot of Yizkor, was the exception. Almost all of the films advocated some level of integration, from accepting a son’s acting career to ditching the yeshiva for the delights of secular Vienna.
Assimilation or at the very least not flaunting their culture was a defense mechanism, a hopeful idea that finding just the right level of fitting in would protect Jewish people from prejudice. Effective? Not really when we look through the comfortable lens of 20/20 hindsight while sitting in our Monday morning quarterback armchair but as David Denby brings out in The New Yorker, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee “took the line that the Jews had to be careful about thrusting themselves before the public.” And that “the A.D.L. quickly remedied the situation, in 1934, by holding a meeting with a group of studio bosses and production heads, the result of which was that Jewish characters were banned altogether.”
I bring up the A.D.L. and the A.J.C. to provide context but I am very uncomfortable with any line of reasoning that puts the responsibility for preventing racism or prejudice on the victims of that racism or prejudice. It’s the ethnic equivalent of “Well, what were you wearing?” Ultimately, racists and antisemites are the only people responsible for racism, antisemitism and any other -ism. Jewish people were and are attacked if they assimilate and they are attacked if they do not assimilate and they are attacked if they are secular and they are attacked if they wear a kippah and payot because antisemitism is based on hatred and not logic. Dreyfus was as assimilated as could be, never forget, and the violence against his family did not end with him. During the Second World War, his granddaughter joined the French Resistance but was arrested and murdered at Auschwitz.
Dreyfus’s story would have to wait until after WWII for the ban on the topic in France to be lifted and for the English-speaking world to take another stab at the tale.
After Zola: I Accuse
While Hollywood did become less shy about tackling antisemitism, along with other prejudice and racism, in the post-WWII years, the industry did not hesitate to slice away details of ethnicity from its films, especially when they were not explicitly about race. (Still doesn’t, come to think of it.) We have Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), which directly addressed the polite antisemitism of the smart set, but there is also the 1954 adaptation of The Caine Mutiny removed references to the Jewishness of Lt. Barney Greenwald that had been present and important in Herman Wouk’s novel. Greenwald was played by José Ferrer, who would take a bold approach to the Dreyfus Affair four years later.
I Accuse was designed to correct the faults of The Life of Emile Zola; Dreyfus is identified as a Jewish man directly, if awkwardly, in the first few minutes of the picture. Further, the general tone of the film is that of a documentary, even if it does take some liberties with the facts.
Having now seen more than my share of Dreyfus pictures, I have been struck by how few of them actually center around… Dreyfus. The idea seems to be to bundle him off to Devil’s Island as soon as possible so that Zola, Picquart or another champion can step in. The more the film does allow Dreyfus onscreen, the more idealized he is. It seems that Hollywood was afflicted by the same problem as the disappointed Dreyfusards: the man himself proved to be insufficiently glamorous and must therefore wait by the sidelines in his own story.
Ferrer’s film (he both directed and starred) does not take either option and I absolutely have to tip my hat to Ferrer for his bold choice here. Dreyfus was not a charismatic man and most films either make him out to be more of a hero or shuffle him off to a corner. As brought out earlier, even Dreyfus’s own supporters expressed their disappointment (and simultaneously revealed their own superficiality) by remarking that the man himself looked unhealthy and unheroic after his Devil’s Island ordeal. In I Accuse, Dreyfus’s curt manners and social awkwardness, his very unromantic self, are brought front and center.
By refusing to romanticize Dreyfus, the film makes its central message clear: Dreyfus was not a worthy cause because he was a charming man, he was a worthy cause because he was an innocent man who was framed. There is no waiting around for the “perfect” victim. I also liked the fact that Mathieu (David Farrar) is brought into the story and shown to be a powerful force for his brother’s defense. And I must praise the talented Herbert Lom, who is quite splendid as the pompous, incompetent du Paty de Clam.
Ferrer is, of course, above reproach as an actor and I certainly can’t find fault with my favorite Cyrano’s performance as the tortured, conflicted Dreyfus. Acknowledging the horrors that Devil’s Island wrought on him adds power to the film and fuels Ferrer’s acting and he has several very good scenes, though I still prefer Schildkraut, inaccurate though the performance may be.
However, I Accuse does examine Dreyfus’s motives for accepting the pardon, the fact that the psychological torture on Devil’s Island broke him completely and the horror of his supporters when they realize that he has no fight left in him. Deep stuff and most welcome.
The film does take other liberties with the historical record, however. Rather than being an anti-Semite who defended Dreyfus on principle, Picquart (Leo Genn) is portrayed as Dreyfus’s friend and benefactor. And Esterhazy, played by Anton Wolbrook, is put forth as a charming rascal. “Ooo, I’m so naughty!” Given the fact that I have been reading about Dreyfus’s hardships, the antisemitic protests, all the horrors Esterhazy inflicted on innocent people because of his treason and his cowardice, I am not a particularly receptive audience.
I Accuse has a lot of things going for it despite these irritations but in the end, it is a bit too straightforward for its own good. There is none of the dash of The Life of Emile Zola and a bit of stylishness would have made this feel less like homework. I agree with the sentiments of the film (well, mostly) but it is a bit of a slog, especially for a viewer who may not be familiar with the case.
(By the way, this picture is not available on home video yet but does sometimes play on TCM so keep your eyes peeled if you get that channel.)
A fresh angle on the story would be attempted once more, this time the star was not Zola or Dreyfus or even Esterhazy.
A Modern Dreyfus: Prisoner of Honor (1991)
With everyone who could have possibly been involved in the case, as well as most of their offspring, quite dead by 1991, Prisoner of Honor was granted relative freedom with its plot. The center of the story would Picquart, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Captain Dreyfus (Kenneth Colley, and yes he did play Admiral Piett in Star Wars) is shown at brief intervals but is never the featured player in his own story.
Prisoner of Honor is… well, a made-for-TV movie. That’s not always a condemnation but the film does suffer from a somewhat choppy narrative and the budgetary seams show at times. However, all this might have been forgiven if the story had been a bit more subtle.
I find that in general, the film works a little too hard and ends up shooting itself in the foot. In-your-face antisemitism is everywhere and while it was indeed deeply woven into the fabric of western culture, by mainly focusing on the screaming of slurs, the film overlooks the subtle microaggressions that were more to blame for Dreyfus’s initial plight. (Not to say that violence and screaming slurs never came into it, just that there were layers.)
I find it interesting that layers and flavors of prejudice were better portrayed in The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) than in a movie made in the 1990s. I mean, it was good to be so clear about the hows and whys of Dreyfus’s plight but I wish a slightly more nuanced approach was used, especially considering they had three decades to mull this over.
Prisoner of Honor emphasizes how unimpressive and ordinary Dreyfus was, which, again, would have been fine but for the fact that the two most colorful characters in the picture are Picquart and Esterhazy, which rather muddles the film’s message even further.
Where do people keep getting the idea that Esterhazy is the most interesting character in this pageant? Obviously, I am Team Mathieu and Lucie but goodness gracious, take your pick! And these portrayals consistently ignore the fact that Esterhazy himself was an anti-Semite who wrote for La Libre Parole. I mean, sorry to rain on your Loveable Roguish Rascal parade but there it is. And don’t even start with the revisionist notion that Esterhazy was an alleged double agent because there’s no real evidence other than the fact that some of Esterhazy’s information for the Germans was out of date or incorrect. Incompetence does not a double agent make.
Ditto for Picquart. The appeal of “anti-Semite defending Jew” is its juxtaposition but, dudes, yawn. Also, as the controversy over a certain Best Picture winner proves, we are sick to death of patting bigots on the head for being slightly not-racist to their “friends.” Picquart did his duty while most of his fellow officers did not. That’s the whole thing in a nutshell.
I remain baffled by the stubborn insistence (I Accuse excepted) that Mathieu Dreyfus is not the man to follow in this case. I understand shifting focus once Alfred Dreyfus starts his stint on Devil’s Island, he has been effectively removed from the action. But Mathieu is far more interesting than either Esterhazy or Picquart, in my opinion. Is there some kind of tariff on Dreyfus brothers and having more than one means a heavy fine? One would think so. Or maybe they just don’t want to spend an entire movie getting their actors to correctly pronounce “Mathieu.”
I think Prisoner of Honor is a well-meaning picture but a bit of a myopic one that never really moves past its pitch meeting synopsis. This lack of subtlety is fatal for a historical event that was all about codes of honor, unwritten rules, nudges, winks and exchanged favors. In the end, the film just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say about the Dreyfus affair.
For all this, there are some very nice sequences. The investigation of the coverup, when it finally happens, has all the excitement of a detective picture and it is great fun to see the elaborate conspiracy be hacked to bits by a few careful observations based on the evidence at hand. And Richard Dreyfuss blusters and sputters as the imperfect, arrogant Picquart.
Still, it’s not an ideal portrayal of the case and attempts to spice things up with cinematic tricks backfire because reality was so much more exciting than anything that could possibly be made up.
The Dreyfus Affair will likely continue to fire the imaginations of filmmakers for another century. It’s a compelling story of injustice and how family, friends and, eventually, much of a nation rose up to save a framed man. It will also, it seems, spark controversy wherever it is discussed, which is another secret to its continuing power.
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