There is nothing more Oscar-bait worthy than the good old biopic. If we look at a quick history of Best Picture winners and nominees, we'll find that a good number of them were life stories of figures famous, infamous, and humble. We don't even have to go that far back...remember The King's Speech? It won Best Picture, but its competition included another biopic, The Fighter. The first biopic to actually win was The Life of Emile Zola, which has the noted French author and activist at the center of the story, but which curiously ISN'T about Monsieur Zola. Instead, it is about events in his life, particularly those created by his own pen, fiction and non.
The film stars with the artist as a young man. Zola (Paul Muni) is very poor, living with his friend and fellow artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). Zola dreams of being a great man of letters, bringing a light to the truth about life (with no sex in it). He does write, and despite getting good jobs his writings raise the ire of censors, who don't like his critiques of those who live on the fringes in Paris or his harsh criticism of the incompetent army general staff. However, his true-life tale of a Parisian prostitute, Nana, becomes a runaway best seller (a bit like the Valley of the Dolls of its day: a book everyone reads but no one admits to reading). With his wealth and fame assured, he opts not to be a provocateur after his book The Downfall gets him into hot water with the army.
Zola, having grown rich, comfortable, and fat, is now almost bourgeois in his lifestyle but keeps a strong liberal view. He, however, has grown tired of crusades, and thus has little interest in the Dreyfus Affair engulfing France. The Dreyfus Affair is a sad and sordid tale almost too shocking to be believed, but it did happen. For those not in the know, this is how it went down.
There is a spy in the French Army, passing secret information onto the Germans. We soon find who this Scoundrel is: one Count Esterhazy (Robert Barrat). However, the High Command, while suspicious of this foreigner, cannot believe someone as elevated as Esterhazy would stoop so low for money. They scour for suspects, and come across the perfect candidate: Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut). He's Jewish, which of course means he's obviously guilty. Captain Dreyfus is summoned to Headquarters, where he's instructed to write a strange note. Unbeknown to him, this is a communique to be made infamous as the bordereau (the list of items the agent was going to pass onto the Germans). Dreyfus is arrested, convicted, drummed out of the Army, and condemned to Devil's Island.
The Army High Command, despite clear-cut evidence that Dreyfus is innocent, continues covering up the truth. The honor of the Army MUST be protected at all costs, and the life of one Jew is a small price to pay to save face. However, there are many who suspect Dreyfus is innocent and who continue the fight. The controversy over Dreyfus soon rips the Republic in half: the pro and anti-Dreyfus parties at each other's throats. As Captain Dreyfus lingers in the living hell of Devil's Island (his imprisonment growing more and more excessive, even paranoid (in the course of three years his hut on the isolated and desolate island is surrounded by a massive wooden barricade and six or more men on twenty-four hour watch), Madame Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard) continues to fight for her husband.
Zola, believing that Dreyfus had a fair court-marshal, has no interest in the affair. Not even a personal appeal by Madame Dreyfus can at first dissuade him to take up an unpopular cause. However, learning from evidence that Madame Dreyfus left behind that Dreyfus was unjustly convicted, his old ideals are stirred, and he dares speak out against the Army High Command. As the scandal grows, the High Command grows desperate, going so far as to court-marshal Esterhazy and acquitting him of all charges even as they know he is guilty in order to protect themselves from the conviction they know to be false. This blatant sham so outrageous Zola that he finally takes the step to challenge the Army head-on with the only weapon he's ever had: his pen. He writes J'Accuse, is promptly sued for libel, and his own court case, while forcing the issue of the Dreyfus Affair onto the public, is another patent case of a kangaroo court. The High Command whip the public into a frenzy, Zola is convicted of libel, and is persuaded to flee France.
In exile in England, he continues to agitate, and finally the whole scandal is forced into the open by a new War Minister. Zola returns to witness Dreyfus restored to the Army, but in a twist, dies of carbon poisoning from a faulty chimney the night before. The Life of Emile Zola ends with his grand funeral.
The opening in The Life of Emile Zola makes it clear that the film is a fictionalized version of the author's life. Perhaps this was done to cover any libel suits Warner Brothers might have faced (which, given the story, would be extremely ironic): after all, the Dreyfus Affair was still a source of fierce controversy when the film was released (and is still today). One can expect a film to take some licence with the truth in order to provide a more dramatic movie, though, and we can forgive the film taking some liberties with the strict facts if it does not short-change the big picture (no pun intended).
In terms of history, The Life of Emile Zola is not the best place to get a firm placing of the facts on how the Dreyfus Affair began. In the film, it a mysterious shadow that brings the bordereau intact to the attention of the French. In reality, it was a charwoman working for the French that brought the torn bordereau to her employers. The biggest whopper comes at the end.
Zola is presented as having died the night before Captain Dreyfus is restored with honor to the French Army, complete with induction into the Legion of Honor. HOWEVER, Captain Dreyfus was fully exonerated in 1906...a full FOUR YEARS AFTER Zola's death (which was, indeed, by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning). Thus, Monsieur Zola could not possibly have been able to have attended Captain Dreyfus' full restoration even if he'd wanted to, on account of being dead.
The biggest misfire in regards to The Life of Emile Zola is in how the Dreyfus Affair is presented. The basics are correct (Esterhazy's duplicity, the determination of the French High Command to cover up the truth in order to protect themselves, the personal courage of Colonel Picquard--Henry O'Neill--the only man in the High Command to dare speak the truth), but only the most passing reference is made to the anti-Semitism that convinced the High Command of Dreyfus' guilt. The fact that Dreyfus is pre-judged to be guilty because of his Jewish background is never spoken once in The Life of Emile Zola, and the only reference to Dreyfus being a Jew comes when we are given a view of Dreyfus' military record, on which "Religion: Jew" is helpfully pointed out by a finger of one of the characters.
Whether the film's refusal to address the anti-Semitic nature of the charges against Dreyfus is a sign of the times the film was made or because it was decided to focus more on the cover-up I cannot say. However, it does appear to be somewhat disingenuous that The Life of Emile Zola could not or would not tackle the primary motivation for the hatred and paranoia against Dreyfus. I can't say whether the script (by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herczeg from a story by Herald and Herczeg) wanted to speak openly about the anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair. Again, while the plot point of the high officers condemning Dreyfus to a living death to protect themselves is based on truth, one sometimes doesn't get that the French public was so whipped up into a frenzy merely because Dreyfus was condemned as a traitor. The bigotry against Jews was in part if not in whole raison pour le affair Dreyfus. Today, someone watching who is not as familiar with the scandal may gleam that most important fact but it will become lost as the story progresses.
However, the film has more benefits to its flaws. While its timidity to fully face up to the bigotry at the heart of the case against Dreyfus, the fact that it tackled the subject at all is an indication of the fact that there were films and filmmakers who at least made an effort to take on unpleasant subjects. The Life of Emile Zola makes its hero not a man of action, and certainly not one of violence. Instead, the hero uses his firm convictions and his intellect to combat an entire army, even an entire nation swept up into a frenzy and paranoia, to get at the truth. The film makes the strong case that even one voice, raised in righteous indignation at injustice, can so force the floodgates open that in a sense, an army could not stop him.
Paul Muni gives a commanding performance as Zola. Muni certainly has strong moments of fierce and fiery passion: his closing arguments to the jury in his libel trial is a bravura performance with him holding the audience's attention for a lengthy monologue. However, he also has moments of comedy. When the Chief Censor of Paris brings him in to complain about Zola's fiery criticism of the French Army's bungling in the Franco-Prussian War, he is told he does nothing but criticize. You criticize the Army, you criticize the Empire, you must stop criticizing them, he is told. In a mixture of innocence and sarcasm, Zola asks the Chief Censor, "You have something better to criticize?"
Muni is matched by Schildkraut as the wrongly condemned Dreyfus, a man who endures the agonies of the damned for something he did not do, a sacrificial lamb for the false sense of honor the French High Command must maintain. His dignity at his public humiliation of being stripped of his rank is heartbreaking while his pleas of innocence to an almost uncaring world rile one up in anger. It is when we see him brought low by his imprisonment that gets at us on an emotional level. It is easy to see why Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.
Director William Dieterle not only brought out great performances from his cast but also kept a steady pace, never bogging down the story save for the first moments until Zola gets Nana published. The 'starving artist' business does slow down the film a touch, but not too much, and once we get to the Dreyfus Affair, The Life of Emile Zola goes full tilt.
About the only performance I would qualify as being a bit mannered is Sondergaard's Madame Dreyfus. I thought it a bit too dramatic, too overwrought. Granted, her husband, a devout Frenchman, was being condemned as a traitor, but I never fully thought she was Madame Dreyfus, but that she was Gale Sondergaard playing at a slightly exaggerated level bordering on over-the-top.
On the whole, The Life of Emile Zola holds up remarkably well, with great performances from Muni and Schildkraut, telling a good story that becomes interesting once we get past Zola's early years as a struggling writer and get him to take up one last cause: the defense of an innocent man whose only crime was to be Jewish, a man caught up in the bigotry and stupidity of those in command. The Life of Emile Zola isn't a strict biopic of the French author and intellectual, and it plays with history. However, it is a Life worth examining.
1938 Best Picture: You Can't Take It With You
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