10. The Life of Emile Zola (1938)

Title: The Life of Emile Zola

Release Date: 2 October, 1937

Oscar Ceremony: 10 March, 1938

Director: William Dieterle

Starring: Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut

I’m really looking forward to reaching a decade where the movies don’t put me to sleep. I mean no offense to these movies considering the fact that they were made over 80 years ago, but I’m really having trouble getting into them. The Life of Emile Zola is no exception, and it seems like I’m not the only one who feels that way because I really struggled finding a copy. It wasn’t available at any library, AND it was equally difficult to find online. I ended up watching a user upload on YouTube. It wasn’t fantastic but it did the trick. However, for a movie that’s black and white and already dry and slow to begin with, watching it in that quality certainly didn’t help.

The Life of Emile Zola is the second biopic to win best picture, but unlike The Great Ziegfeld, there’s no hint of comedy or extravagance involved. Moreover, while the movie is titled The Life of Emile Zola, most of the story revolves around his involvement in the Dreyfus affair, a political controversy in France during the Third Republic (1894-1906), where a Jewish army captain named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason for passing military secrets to the Germans. Maybe I didn’t enjoy the movie so much but at least I learned something, because to be honest, I had never heard of this trial and yet it seems quite significant. It is often referenced in discussions of injustice and anti-semitism. I think this is one of the few movies where I’ll talk about the entire plot, including the ending, because it’s based on a famous true story so you can’t really say there are any spoilers. You’ll see that it’s quite an catchy story and definitely the type of Oscar-bait material we tend to see nowadays, but trust me when I say you have to be REALLY interested in it to actually sit through it all.

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The film opens with Zola sharing a worn-out attic apartment in Paris with his roommate, Paul Cezanne (too much creative genius for such a small space, if you ask me). We see his struggles as a writer until he encounters a prostitute who eventually inspires him to write his first bestselling novel, Nana. I first heard about Emile Zola in high school and told myself I had to read one of his books. I don’t remember hearing about Nana, but I do remember wanting to read Au Bonheur Des Dammes, which I still never got around to. Perhaps if I had read more of his material and knew more about him, I would have been more invested in this movie. Anyways, the story goes on and we see Zola’s rise to fame and fortune. This entire initial part of the movie, lasting about 30 minutes, is essentially just a set-up for the real gist: the Dreyfus affair. I understand that it seemed essential to the writers to familiarize audiences with Zola’s career before detailing his involvement in the Dreyfus affair, but I feel like they spent too much time on this. In my opinion, they should have either stuck with a movie that was mostly focused on Zola’s life, or they should have been forthright and called this movie The Dreyfus Affair instead of misleading audiences into believing it was actually going to be centered around Zola, especially considering the orientation of the first half hour. Either way, it is what it is, and eventually the movie abruptly shifts its focus to the case of Alfred Dreyfus, accused of passing military secrets to the Germans.

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From the start, it seems like this man is simply a scapegoat in the matter, and the fact that he is Jewish definitely contributes to his fate. It is important to note that the audience is made to side with Dreyfus; in other words, the film condemns this injustice and its anti-semitic aspect. Dreyfus ends up being exiled to Devil’s Island, a famous prison in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the meantime, another officer discovers evidence that proves Dreyfus’ innocence, but when he shows it to officials, he is told to keep quiet. Instead of righting their wrongdoings, the French army decides to cover things up in order to avoid humiliation. Shame on them. Is this really surprising though?

It’s still interesting to see that this movie was released not long before the start of WW2, the anti-semitic pinnacle of the century, and that its promotion of liberal values and justice did not stick at all. The movie was well-received, won Best Picture, was directed by a German man, made audiences sympathize with Dreyfus, and yet the Holocaust followed not long after all this. Movies are powerful, but often not powerful enough. The same thing happened with All Quiet on the Western Front; the atrocities of war were made very clear yet society did not learn its lesson at all. Nonetheless, it’s still nice to see that people with a voice in a prolific industry are putting their exposure to good use by releasing cautionary tales like this. It doesn’t hurt to try.

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Speaking of powerful voices, time passes in the movie and eventually Dreyfus’ wife approaches Zola to ask him to publicly vouch for Dreyfus’ innocence. Zola was initially reluctant, as this would mean a huge risk to his career, but considering the evidence he was presented with along with his personal morals, he ended up agreeing. He published the famous open letter “J’accuse…!” in the newspaper L’Aurore on January 13, 1898. This letter really brought the matter to the public eye and many people started taking interest in Alfred Dreyfus’ situation and the government’s procedures. Naturally, Zola is eventually tried for defamation and is found guilty. A large part of the movie is essentially a courtroom drama filled with long political speeches. Zola flees to England and continues his campaign there. Thanks to the exposure Zola brought to the case, Dreyfus is finally found innocent and is to be reinstated in the army. Tragically, Emile Zola dies of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in his home the night before. WHAT A SLAP IN THE FACE.

What viewers are supposed to take away from this film is that we must continue fighting for what is right. It’s a good message, but once again, it doesn’t really feel like The Life of Emile Zola was about Emile Zola at all. As noble as he is, he’s just a famous figure used as an excuse to talk about greater issues at stake, and a character that Hollywood can use to deliver influential social justice speeches. I’ll let you leave with a part of one of these speeches that Zola gives to his wife the night of his death:

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To save Dreyfus, we had to challenge the might of those who dominate the world. It is not the swaggering militarists. They’re but puppets that dance as the strings are pulled. It is those others, those who would ruthlessly plunge us into the bloody abyss of war to protect their power.

Think of it, thousands of children sleeping peacefully tonight under the roofs of Paris, Berlin,London, all the world, doomed to die horribly under some titanic battlefield unless it can be prevented. And it can be prevented! The world must be conquered, but not by force of arms, but by ideas that liberate. Then can we build it anew.

P.S. Does anyone else find that the picture of Paul Muni as Emile Zola on the movie poster kind of looks like Alec Baldwin? (see homepage)

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