The Life of Emile Zola

Released:  1937

Cast:  Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut

Oscar Wins:  Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Joseph Schildkraut), Best Writing, Screenplay (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, Norman Reilly Raine)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Director (William Dieterle), Best Actor (Paul Muni), Best Art Direction (Anton Grot), Best Music, Score (Max Steiner), Best Sound, Recording (Nathan Levinson), Best Writing, Original Story (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg), Best Assistant Director (Russ Saunders)

SUMMARY:  As a young man in the mid-19th century, struggling writer Emile Zola (Paul Muni) lives in a drafty attic apartment with his friend, struggling painter Paul Cezanne.  Zola is engaged to Alexandrine (Gloria Holden), but has no money with which to marry her.  One day, he and Cezanne are in a small café when the police raid the local red-light district, arresting many of the prostitutes.  One of these women runs into the café, and Zola pretends that she is a friend of theirs when the police arrive.  Over the following hours, he asks the woman all about her life – and then writes a novel about it, called Nana.  The book becomes a huge success, and rescues both Zola and the woman (to whom he gives some of the money) from destitution.  It also allows Zola to finally marry Alexandrine, and settle into a comfortable life.  Over the years, Zola continues to write successful novels, and becomes more and more famous and influential.  However, by the early 1900s, Cezanne warns Zola that he has fallen into the trap he used to accuse others of:  he has become content and complacent in his wealth, and no longer has the passion or drive that he once had.  At the same time, there are problems in the French military.  The top staff are aware that there is a leak somewhere in their ranks, but after intercepting a letter to the German embassy, they come to the conclusion that the culprit must be a captain named Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut).  There is little evidence to support this claim, but it is inferred that Dreyfus’s religion (Judaism) has an effect on the decision (though the viewer is shown that the real spy is another officer named Major Esterhazy).  Dreyfus is quickly court-martialed, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.

Although the trial is all the papers can talk about, Zola has little interest in the matter, assuming that the army made the correct decision.  Several years after the initial trial, a new Chief of Intelligence is appointed.  This man, Colonel Picquart, investigates the affair and finds evidence that implicates Esterhazy, thereby clearing Dreyfus.  However, when he takes the evidence to his superiors, they officially order him to keep quiet, then reassign him to a faraway post.  More years pass, until most people have forgotten about the Dreyfus affair.  The one person who continues to fight is Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie (Gale Sondergaard), who eventually comes to Zola for help.  She has evidence of Dreyfus’s innocence, and Esterhazy’s guilt, and wants Zola to use his fame and reputation to shed light on the situation.  Zola turns her down, but when she leaves the evidence with him, he begins to look at it, and soon changes his mind.  He writes a scathing letter to the newspaper, revealing the injustices done to Dreyfus by the French military.  This is published on the front page, and ignites near-hysteria in the French people.  The military is furious, and sends agents out to start anti-Zola protests at every opportunity.  Zola is quickly charged with libel, and brought before a (pro-military) French court.  The judge refuses to allow any evidence regarding the Dreyfus trial, since it is officially closed, and essentially thwarts the defense at every opportunity.  Zola is found guilty, and sentenced to a year in prison.  He intends to serve the term, but is finally persuaded that to best help the fight for Dreyfus, he should flee to England.  He does this for several years, until new government officials are appointed.  The Dreyfus case is re-opened, and Dreyfus is declared innocent.  Esterhazy leaves the country before he can be punished, but the other army officers that were involved are dismissed in disgrace.  Dreyfus comes back to France, but on the night before he is to be reinstated in the French army, Zola dies of an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, due to a leaky stove pipe.  His funeral is attended by masses of people, including Dreyfus and Cezanne.

MY TAKE:  This movie has an interesting connection to another one I recently reviewed, as it involves Devil’s Island.  In Papillon, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman try to escape another nearby island prison, and are ultimately put on Devil’s Island.  That movie takes place in the 1930s, about thirty/forty years before this one, so Devil’s Island was already famous for being the place where Dreyfus was sent.  The entire Dreyfus Affair was a huge scandal in French history, sort of like the U.S.’s Benedict Arnold (only Arnold actually was guilty).  It’s horrifying that the military would be so lackadaisical about apprehending a spy who was passing military secrets to the Germans.  They didn’t conduct any kind of investigation, they just decided that because Dreyfus spoke German and was born in Alsace (which was annexed by Germany in 1870, when Dreyfus was 10; he and his family moved to Paris when this happened), he must be guilty.  The fact that he was Jewish, while not dwelt on in the movie, was also a factor:  at the time of his trial, the general feel of the French general staff was anti-Semitic.  The fact that this was kind of glossed over in the movie also became controversial, because it was released only a few years before WWII erupted; at the time, Hitler’s extreme prejudice against Jews was already well-known.  It’s been alleged that this aspect of the affair was removed in order to not to ruffle feathers.  Personally, while I think anti-Semitism is ridiculous, it doesn’t an impact on the film for me.  It might have contributed to the initial charging of Dreyfus, but he was convicted of the crime without any evidence.  When such evidence did surface, the military furthered their crime by covering it up.  When Zola again brought the evidence to light, they tried to silence him.  All of this is despicable, but what blows me away is that there was a SPY in their midst –and they were happy to charge a man without any evidence.  They didn’t make any effort to find the real traitor, even after they learned that Dreyfus was innocent.  Apparently, maintaining appearances was more important to the general staff than protecting the country.  The ending of the movie is a little skewed, probably for entertainment purposes.  After the fuss Zola raised, Dreyfus was tried again, and was again declared guilty.  However, because public opinion had so turned pro-Dreyfus, the French president offered Dreyfus a pardon, which he accepted.  This allowed him to come home, but he lived under house-arrest away from his family.  It was only in 1906 (four years after Zola died) that the military finally exonerated and reinstated him.  However, this is not as impactful as his returning just as Zola dies, so I’m assuming that’s why things were changed.  Actually, Zola’s death is controversial, too.  It was ruled an accidental death, like it’s shown in the movie, but since then, there have been claims that he was killed by assassins.  Nothing to this effect has ever been proven, but it just adds to the speculation that seems to surround the entire Dreyfus saga.

RATING:  Impressive.

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