The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Directed by William Dieterle
Written by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald & Geza Herzczeg

The oldest entry into the marathon, The Life of Emile Zola is also the only biopic in this marathon, which is somewhat surprising. But it is not a biopic of a Jewish man, or even a man deeply involved as being an anti-Semite. Emile Zola is a renown author in France and is known for his social commentary on various things including government and military. For Zola, it is a rags to riches tale. Zola began the film in a one room apartment with friend Paul Cezanne and gradually writes books that gain popular holdings despite their controversial issues. This makes him a good deal of money and makes him a famous, wealthy man. There is also a sub plot to the story though: Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus is a military man who has spent 20 years serving his country. To his detriment, in terms of what soon transpires in the film, he is also a Jew. When a letter is intercepted between an unknown French officer and a German military attache that was quite revealing, Dreyfus is blamed for the treason, even when a writing test must prove his innocence. That is where Zola comes into play to defend his innocence.

The film won Best Picture in 1937, which to me is somewhat surprising, though Hollywood has always been quite liberal and always looking for a good political statement, though I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. It was actually quite well received and nominated for a number of other awards. Having not seen anything else from that yea I don’t reckon, I cannot say whether the accolades were deserved, but it was a somewhat well crafted film. Paul Muni in the title role gives a great performance which culminates in a moving speech at the end. There was just something that was never quite engaging enough to me about it. And maybe it is something with biopics, never being quite satisfying enough to me but, while I appreciated the life of Emile Zola, I was never captivated by it. At the same time, this is something that will also have a minimal impact on my paper as it did with my film appetite. Something more like The Great Dictator is where I will be able to extract great analysis and great viewing experiences.

Commentary on Anti-Semitism

The Dreyfus Affair is something that we have discussed in my class and something that has obvious anti-Semitic implications. The film, while a chronicle of the life of Emile Zola and not Alfred Dreyfus, deals heavily with the controversial issue at the turn of the century. In the film the anti-Semitism bit is played up, but only for a moment when the general accuses his as being the one who has committed treason for sure, noting the line on his bio which indicated his religion: Jew. Apart from this small moment in the film, Dreyfus’ faith is not discussed, but the damage had already been done. The French had used Dreyfus as a Jewish scapegoat and let Esterhazy run free until finally a good man, Emile Zola, stood up to defend him alongside his wife Lucie. In the end, Dreyfus was freed and cleared of charges, but the time he spent on Devil’s Island cannot be given back and the anti-Semitic views of his accusers still exist, whether the final truth came out or not.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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