The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

WILLIAM DIETERLE

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

USA, 1937. . Story by , , Screenplay by , Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, based on Zola And His Time by Cinematography by Produced by , . Music by Production Design by Costume Design by , Film Editing by Academy Awards 1937.   National Board of Review Awards 1937.   New York Film Critics Awards 1937.

This Hollywood biopic has something of a misleading title: after we first meet struggling writer Emile Zola, played with his usual wigs-and-accents fervor by the Gary Oldman of his day, Paul Muni, we see a few moments of suffering in poverty before his first hit book Nana (which is an incorrect summation of his publishing history) turns him into a public sensation. Within minutes he’s a wealthy and socially conscious author of note and decades have passed, he having churned out one contemplative book after another and pissing off the upper classes of nineteenth-century France. The life of Emile Zola that is being described, then, is actually the life of Alfred Dreyfus and how Zola’s involvement in what came to be known as the “Dreyfus Affair” affected its outcome. The famed injustice done against a Jewish soldier in the French army takes up the bulk of the film’s running time, the historic case of the man accused of selling secrets to enemy Germans who was imprisoned without proof and whose fate was the result of prejudice against his heritage. It becomes an even bigger atrocity when the real culprit is nabbed and the army, determined to not lose face, leaves Dreyfus (a sympathetic Joseph Schildkraut) to rot in jail on Devil’s Island. Appealed to by Dreyfus’s wife (an overanxious Gale Sondergaard), Zola at first resists getting involved, insisting that the system couldn’t possibly be corrupt, before looking into it further and discovering that his country is in the hands of a self-serving military that will go against the nation’s revolutionary principles in the name of saving its own reputation. Period details are impressive and William Dieterle’s direction is committed, but this many years later the film’s determination to completely avoid any overt reference to Jewishness (namely to keep the film from being banned in Hitler’s Germany, at that point still a tenuous ally) is ridiculous, while telling its story through Zola’s eyes is odd considering that there’s little in the way of an impressive transformation that happens to him via his involvement in this case. Odd and uneven, it’s not without its worthy moments but, in its desire to avoid sentimental manipulation, comes off a bit dry.