The Life of Emile Zola (1937) Director: William Dieterle
The Life of Emile Zola is the remarkable biographical film of Émile Zola, the great French writer and critic. Zola is played by Paul Muni, notable for his performance in Scarface in 1932, and his Academy Award winning performance in The Story of Louis Pasteur in 1936.
The first half of the film tells the story of Zola, a poor but rebellious young man, incapable of holding a job due to his controversial writings (he is a soft-spoken, sharp-tongued man of letters). He shares a flat with Paul Cézanne. Zola gets rich when his book Nana is a success, and Cézanne leaves him for the countryside, by reminding Zola of his humble origins. Zola writes a series of other successful books. The second half of the film tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair, in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the army, was wrongly convicted of being a traitor to the French Army. He is sentenced to prison on Devil’s Island but Dreyfus’s wife eventually comes to Zola for help. Zola, remembering the words of his old friend Cézanne, takes up the case with his famous J’accuse. However, in the trial Zola is found guilty, so he flees the state for London. In the end, all is put to right in later years as Dreyfus is returned to Paris and reinstated in the army, promoted to Major, while Zola is found dead accidentally due carbon monoxide poisoning the night before Dreyfus’s renewed trial. Zola is given a hero’s burial in Paris.
The film has been criticized for failing to fully explore the role antisemitism played in the Zola trial, however in the 1930s there was a wave of paranoia about “anti-German” propaganda emanating from tinseltown -many directors were corralled into creating sanitized pro-German movies. The Life of Emile Zola won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production (now called Best Picture) in 1937. It was regarded as the greatest biopic made up until that time. The music for the film is brilliantly composed by Max Steiner.
Paul Muni delivers a mostly great performance as Zola, as does Joseph Schildkraut (winner of an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) for his performance as Dreyfus. The film is a truly great biographical picture, albeit excessively sentimental at times and boring.