Four episodes in, I still can’t quite decide what to make of this – but I think that we are now getting somewhere. Bearing in mind that I’m a historian, not a crime series person, I was expecting a historical drama showing the effects of the Dreyfus Affair on Parisian society – the nasty side of the Belle Epoque. It does do that, to some extent, but we’ve also had the police trying to contact the deceased president in a seance to ask whether or not the Dreyfusards murdered him by tampering with his Viagra equivalent, an extremist drugging the police commissioner’s wife in an attempt to take photos of his friend abusing her (fortunately, he was foiled when the dead president’s mistress recovered from a heroin-induced coma and stopped him), policemen being stabbed to death through doors, someone being murdered when his chimney was blocked up so that he was asphyxiated, a man trying to have his wife imprisoned for adultery but changing his mind when he realised that the story’d get into the papers, and an awful lot of dismembered bodies.
However, in the fourth episode, we have finally got more into the nitty-gritty of the Dreyfus Affair and everything surrounding it, and away from some of the crazier stuff. Although we tend to associate the Belle Epoque with people doing the can-can in the Moulin Rouge, this was a troubled time in French history, with politics deeply polarised, feelings still running high about the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and, of course, the Dreyfus Affair and the associated riots in France and Algeria – which caused such strong feelings internationally that there were anti-French demonstrations in many countries, the entire British press united to condemn the French authorities, the Lord Chief Justice of England criticised the French courts, and Edvard Grieg cancelled a proposed tour of France. It casts such a long shadow that it’s being dragged up in the current French election race, and a museum dedicated to it was opened only a couple of weeks ago.
Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer, was controversially convicted of passing state secrets to Germany, and exiled to Devil’s Island. It then emerged that the real culprit was someone else, there were demands that Dreyfus be released, and, in early 1898, the writer Emile Zola famously published the “J’Accuse letter”, addressed to President Felix Faure, pointing out that the case against Zola was full of holes and accusing the authorities of anti-Semitism and violating justice. Zola was then convicted of libel. Anti-Semitic riots broke out across France and Algeria. Dreyfus was retried, with journalists and photographers all over the world crowding into the court, but again found guilty. There was such an uproar that he was pardoned, but he wasn’t officially cleared until several years later.
In the middle of all this, President Faure died suddenly, apparently whilst enjoying the “company” of his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. And there was an attempted coup at his funeral.
Tangled up in all this was the Anti-Semitic League, which had begun life as a nationalistic league wanting revenge on Prussia but had then turned nasty.
In this series, Marguerite Steinheil is employed by the police to spy on the Guerins, the leaders of the Anti-Semitic League. Running alongside this is a series of mysterious murders of women, thought to have been carried out by a butcher – hence all the dismembered bodies.
The sets are brilliant – the turn of the century Parisian streets in working-class areas, the gorgeous costumes of well-to-do women, and the Guerins’ frighteningly impressive rabble-rousing. And there’s an awful lot going on, and a lot of interesting characters. But some of it really is very strange! However, what is never is is boring! Let’s see what the next four episodes bring …