The convicted child rapist just won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival and nobody is talking about it

Marie Eberle
Sep 11 · 5 min read
Roman Polanski at Cannes, 20013. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Roman Polanski has bagged yet another award. This time it’s the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival. Polanski, a fugitive from the U.S. criminal justice system, did not accept the prize in person. If he travelled much, he would face the possibility of being sent back to America, where he would have to finally start serving his sentence for unlawful sexual intercourse, with a 13-year old minor in 1978 —statutory rape, for which there is ample evidence and to which he has pled guilty.

It is difficult to conceptualise this as a comeback, since Polanski never really left. Despite his crime, as well as detailing sex with underage girls in his autobiography, Polanski has continued to make movies and be showered in accolades for them. These include an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and the Cannes Palme d’Or.

But as horrifying as all this already is, it’s not all there is to this story.

The cherry on top is that he didn’t win the Grand Jury Prize for a random biopic or political thriller. He won it for An Officer and a Spy, which is based on a 2003 novel that revolves around the real-life events of the Dreyfus Affair. Known as L’affaire Dreyfus in France, this political scandal has become rallying cry against modern injustice, miscarriage of justice, and antisemitism in the Francophone world.

“The military prison at Rennes.” Dreyfus was incarcerated here during his second trial. Source: An issue of La Petit Journal detailing the Dreyfus Affair.

The Dreyfus Affair spanned more than a decade from 1894 to 1906.

It was kicked off when 35-year-old French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason. Based on evidence falsely attributed to him, Dreyfus stood accused of communicating French military secrets to a German military attaché in Paris and was put on trial in the midst of a virulently anti-Semitic press campaign.

The scandal laid bare deep rifts that divided the Third French Republic and shone a spotlight on the depth of anti-Jewish hostility in France at the end of the 19th century. Religious minorities had officially been protected by the law since 1787, but Jewish people continued to encounter widespread discrimination.

Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy picks up in 1896 when the head of the army’s intelligent service, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, discovered actual evidence that pointed towards the real spy. Dreyfus had been accused of authoring a note that shared confidential French military information about newly developed artillery weapons, but Picquart was able to establish that the handwriting on the note perfectly matched the handwriting of another French officer, Major Walsin-Esterhazy — who was also known to have communications with the German attaché. Further, Esterhazy didn’t have the best reputation and also faced an enormous amount of debt.

A sketch of the trial; Dreyfus hears the sentence of the Council of War. Source: Flickr

The combination of these discoveries led Picquart to develop the theory that monetary reasons made Esterhazy commit the crimes Dreyfus was convicted for. But when Picquart shared his findings with his superiors at the French army, he was rebuked. Nobody wanted to admit any flaw in the original investigation.

It took an enormous amount of private and public campaigning until Dreyfus was finally exonerated in 1906, 10 years after Picquart had started his initial investigation into the matter.

While the Dreyfus Affair represents a hugely important moment in modern Western history, Polanski’s involvement with the feature film on it leaves a bile aftertaste.

The film is becoming a clear vehicle for Polanski to exonerate himself, as he explains in a recent interview:

“Working, making a film like this helps me a lot. In the story, I sometimes find moments I have experienced myself, I can see the same determination to deny the facts and condemn me for things I have not done. Most of the people who harass me do not know me and know nothing about the case….My work is not therapy. However, I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me.”

Maybe I am showing my own bias and limited understanding of the film industry and 19th century France, but to me personally any parallels between Polanski and Dreyfus are not that obvious.

Polanski is a rightfully convicted but fugitive child rapist. Since his trial in 1978, Polanski has won an Oscar for Best Director, and directed two more Oscar-winning films. He has continued to work with the best Hollywood has to offer. When his warrant by U.S. American police led to a momentary arrest on the way to the Zurich Film Festival, which was holding a tribute to him, by Swiss police in 2009, 138 industry people signed a letter to demand his immediate release.

Meanwhile, Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason and spent five years doing penal labour on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The prison colony doesn’t resemble Polanski’s chalet, known as Milky Way, in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, in the slightest, but maybe that’s just me.

It’s almost like MeToo never happened.

It’s been only two years, but it already feels like all efforts to support survivors and end sexual violence have barely dented the surface of the problem, when men like Polanski continue to helm the film industry. If we cannot make people understand that supporting people who show zero understanding that sex with kids is wrong, is there really going to be any long-lasting change in Hollywood in the post-MeToo era?

Only time will tell, of course, but so far, things don’t look so good.


Snippets of pop culture through a feminist lens.

Marie Eberle

Written by

Coffee fanatic, film enthusiast, book lover. Writing about women, culture and environmentalism.


Snippets of pop culture through a feminist lens.

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