THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (William Dieterle, 1937)

One of the best, most engrossing and impassioned films to win a best picture Oscar, William Dieterle’s The Life of Emile Zola focuses on author-activist Zola and Alfred Dreyfus, the Army artillery officer who was wrongly accused of passing secrets to the German Embassy and whose cause Zola championed. Dreyfus, found guilty, was condemned to Devil’s Island; when the Army general staff realized his innocence, it devised a cover-up to hide its blunder, ostensibly for “the honor of France.” Zola precipitated a libel trial against himself to air the matter, taking public aim at “. . . the glory of the Army, the power of the state.” Fleeing France on the heels of his own guilty verdict, he relentlessly continued his print campaign for Dreyfus’s exoneration.
     Paul Muni (best actor, New York critics) memorably stars, beginning with Zola in 1862 when he is a poor, struggling writer in Paris. Written by Oscar winners Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg, the film bends history occasionally for emotional effect; for instance, Zola just misses the ceremony militarily reinstating Dreyfus when in fact Zola died four years earlier. Joseph Schildkraut is brilliant and intensely moving as Captain Dreyfus, winning an Oscar and honored likewise by the National Board of Review.
     The Dreyfus affair tore France apart, and Dieterle trenchantly conveys the tumult. Two issues weighed in: French infatuation with the military, conferring hallowed status on it; the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish. Given American anti-Semitism, the studio prohibited mentioning the latter; but Dieterle snuck in the point in a split-second shot of the Army staff roster: devious; necessary; triumphant.
     One of the most piercing uses of film music occurs when, relatively late in life, Zola is roused to his final crusade, for Dreyfus, and we hear again, after its long absence, the theme earlier identified with Zola’s crusading younger days. Max Steiner scored the film.
     All over the Internet it is wrongly reported that Cezanne delivers Zola’s eulogy in the film. It is Anatole France who says, “He was a moment in the conscience of man.” Dieterle ends with his greatest shot ever: at that scene, a long-shot of those in attendance standing and starting to sway: an evocation of humanity—and of its living conscience.

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