JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Life of Emile Zola (Director: William Dieterle) - April 20, 2022

The Life of Emile Zola

4 4
116 min.

Make no mistake

The search for truth against all odds takes on a decidedly romanticized tone in the 1937 Best Picture winner.

The opening scene where we meet Émile Zola (an engaging, if somewhat too pompous performance by Paul Muni: knowing understatement is not in his arsenal) and Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff tries his best, but along with the majority of the cast can’t really convince that he is French to the core, much less coeur) in a miserable Parisian garret. Burning books filled with “perfumed lies” for heat (deftly foreshadowing Zola’s demise) and behind on the rent, these circumstances have been lifted directly from La Bohème (but the music can’t hold a candle to Puccini’s brilliant score as the studio violins struggle in vain to reach the same heights as the noble thoughts they accompany).

Zola’s early fearless journalism made more enemies than friends and few francs. But once he turned his pen to fiction (laced, nonetheless, with uncomfortable truths about French society, prostitution, and vrai honour), his fortune was made. Cézanne’s best moment comes when—years later—he reminds his longtime friend that “you’ve become what we detested” (fat and no longer driven to say what no one really wants to hear).

All of which purposely sets the stage for the film’s central recounting of the Dreyfus Affair (French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus—a fascinating mix of stoicism and madness from Joseph Schildkraut—is hoodwinked into taking the wrap for treason, convicted and sentenced to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island).

Writers Norman Reine, Heinz Harold and Geza Herczeg take all of the licence at their disposal to cast Zola as the—at first—reluctant champion of the lost cause and pepper the dialogue with on-the-nose lines that hammer home their theme without much concern for nuance or letting viewers figure things out for themselves (“The Army does not make mistakes,” is bellowed aloud by the chief censor as young Zola is threatened for daring to criticize the military establishment in print; later, as Dreyfus’ fate is sealed—both a traitor and a Jew!—we learn that “French justice doesn’t make mistakes.”). Thank goodness the death penalty wasn’t imposed for the trumped up charge.

As the truth does begin to trickle out, beginning with Zola’s struggle with the choice of staying out of the fray or rekindling the fire in his belly, the fabled J’Accuse hits the presses and the famed novelist soon gets his wish: his own trial for making such libellous statements against the French military establishment.

Seen in 2013 with the likes of WikiLeaks, Syria, Egypt, Guantanamo Bay and a crack cocaine video (imagined or not) revealing far too many emperors with no clothes, it’s abundantly clear that this melodramatic treatment of “Do as I say, not as I do” is not going away anytime soon.

Movie buffs must see this classic production if for no other reason than the cinema’s first major courtroom drama. The speeches on both sides are magnificent (notably defence lawyer Maitre Labori—Donald Crisp is superb in his outrage; Muni has his best speech when permitted to speak in his own defence) and the outcome—“Guilty”—is at one with Mutiny on the Bounty (yet Zola’s exile is short lived and justice, belatedly, is finally done).

Still, the late-inning notion that many wars are purposely started “to protect their [military establishment and their political masters] power” rings as true today as ever. JWR

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Director - William Dieterle
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