Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Life of Émile Zola

Directed by William Dieterle
The United States of America

Émile Zola: What does it matter if an individual is shattered - if only justice is resurrected?

Whenever I watch a movie based on historical events, I keep two things in mind. First, is the story historically accurate? Second, if there are inaccuracies, are they forgivable? Hollywood has a long history of flubbing historical details in the name of better storytelling. Sometimes they are unforgivable. Other times, historical inaccuracies can be tolerated as long as the truth is upheld. Take William Dieterle’s The Life of Émile Zola (1937). A fantastic biopic of one of France’s greatest writers, it focuses around one of the most important events of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Dreyfuss Affair. Many of the details are intact. A Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfuss was wrongly persecuted and convicted of treason. The army later discovered the real culprit, but kept the whole affair quiet in order to prevent embarrassment. Later Émile Zola took up his cause, wrote the infamous J’accuse, and was put on trial for criminal libel. He was convicted, whereupon Zola fled to England. Dreyfuss was later found innocent and was exonerated and reinstated into the army where he was promoted. And yes, Zola did die of carbon monoxide poisoning before Dreyfuss was reinstated. But let’s look at the facts.

One of the key controversies of the Dreyfuss Affair was the involvement of anti-Semitism among the army. The film acknowledges the possible involvement of anti-Semitism, but then quickly forgets it (It is possible, as Neil Gabler has pointed out, that the Jewish studio moguls didn’t want to bring the issue up out of fear of a potential backlash from society). As for Dreyfuss, he was convicted in November 1894. He wasn’t pardoned until September 19, 1899. The film doesn’t make much distinction over the passage of time. Yes, Dreyfuss grows himself a mighty fine set of whiskers, but nothing really emphasizes how long he was imprisoned. Not to mention that, unlike in the film, Dreyfuss was not reinstated into the French Army and made a Knight of the Legion of Honour until 1906, a full seven years after he was pardoned. The film would have us believe that he was pardoned and reinstated on the same day. He wasn’t even made a Knight of the Legion of Honour until a week later. The final historical hiccup is that Zola did not die the day before Dreyfuss was reinstated, but a whole four years earlier in 1902.

But these complaints can quickly be forgotten if you choose to take it as a piece of historical allegory instead of a pure historical reconstruction. At its core, The Life of Émile Zola is about a man standing up to a corrupt government that allows the persecution of innocent people. If the film had lingered more on the fact the Dreyfuss was a Jew, then maybe the historical parallel would become more apparent. Maybe it would help to point out that in 1937, the year that The Life of Émile Zola was released, new laws were introduced in Germany that completely segregated Jews from “German Aryans.” Now the metaphor becomes clearer. Add to it the fact that the director, William Dieterle, was born in Germany in 1893 to Jewish parents. I wonder if the studio would have made the film without Dieterle, who immigrated to America in 1930 and became a neutralized citizen in 1937.

William Dieterle

Now, it’s true that the Nazis would not invade Poland, sparking World War Two, for two more years. It’s also true that it would be four years until America joined the fight. But this film does have an uncanny prophetic zeal to it. The army scapegoats a Jewish officer for a crime he didn’t commit. He is sent far, far away to be imprisoned. The man who eventually fights for him is extremely reluctant at first, but then attacks with all his power. And when the smoke has cleared, what are the excuses given by those involved? Why, they were just following orders, of course. And besides, it was for the glory of the Army and the Government that it protects.

But historical allusions aside, The Life of Émile Zola is a fascinating film. Starting with his days living with Paul Cézanne in an attic where they burnt books for warmth, the movie follows his rise to success, his struggles with the French courts during the Dreyfuss Affair, and eventually to his death. Paul Muni (who had won the Academy Award for Best Actor the year before in another Dieterle film, The Story of Louis Pasteur) plays Zola as a man burning with an inner fire. Getting his first big success with the story of a street prostitute, Nana, Zola establishes himself as a powerful whistleblower. Indeed, we learn that the army already resents Zola for a scathing work that pointed out the inefficiencies and inherent corruption within the ranks of the army during a recent war with the Prussians. He later only agrees to help in the Dreyfuss case after Mrs. Dreyfuss came to him personally to present evidence. And so, he valiantly fights against the very system that kept Dreyfuss imprisoned. The court scenes where Zola fights against accusations of libel are curiously powerful. They are much more realistic than other Hollywood court scenes. The film Mr. Deeds Comes to Town (released the previous year) comes to mind as an example of these kinds of scenes where good always comes out over evil. Instead, we get a kangaroo court where Dreyfuss’ lawyers are rarely allowed to even ask their witnesses questions. The entire scene burns with a vivid realism.

But what truly makes this film come alive is the gift of hindsight. If only we had seen The Life of Émile Zola as the call to action that it was. Every word, every syllable gains new meaning and importance when we compare them to actual events. Now, I want to point out that this movie did win the Academy Award for Best Film. But be honest, how many times have you ever heard about this movie? Just because a movie wins awards, it doesn’t mean that it won’t become under-appreciated one day. I believe that this film has been neglected. It is a powerful piece of cinema. It is a cry for justice in a time when so few received it. It is a shining moment of conscience in the history of cinema.



  1. You write so well. This movie really whets my appetite. I'm waiting for the coming one on Lincoln. Gandhi by Attenborough was one of the best.

  2. You may not have to wait that long. Apparently Stephen Spielberg is planning on directing a Lincoln biopic in the near future.

  3. Well I'm one hour into the film and cannot wait to share how terrific it is....I'll read your essay after completing the movie and writing mine...tomorrow here (it's past midnight)...

  4. I am thrilled that you are enjoying it. I can't wait to read your article.

  5. Your review sees many angles which I missed out.

  6. I personally would not be fussy about the historical details. What matters is that Dieterle brings alive Zola the man through the recreation of the Dreyfus affair. I instinctively feel that he has been faithful to the essence (just as Robert J Flaherty was in Nanook) and even if there are significant deviations, the movie, as art, stands on its own two legs.

  7. Exactly. The most important thing is that they created a moving tribute to one of the greatest moments of heroism in European history.

    I only get bothered by historical inaccuracies in two circumstances:

    1) When they claim to be accurate by are not.
    2) When something is so blatantly wrong that it insults the source material.

    Dieterle did neither.