The Life of Emile Zola (1937) Poster

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May my name be forgotten, if Dreyfus is not innocent.. He is innocent.
Ziggy544626 February 2007
In 1937, The Life of Emile Zola was nominated for the largest number of awards, ten. The movie won three including Best Picture. However, sadly and in some ways shamefully, this film has been ridiculed for being dated today, it's ways and means a little obsolete, and it's style rather unusual. That is downright unjust! The style which is portrayed in this remarkable seventy year old film is quite conventional. The dialogue is perhaps overwritten, but the powerful story is there, and the story line is enhanced by intelligent dialogue to say the least, as well as, first rate performances by an excellent cast, preferably Paul Muni (giving possibly his best performance) as Emile Zola and supported well by Joseph Schildkraut as Dreyfus. Not to mention, the film is technically excellent. Editing, costuming, lighting - without doubt, and all the production values stand up beautifully even several decades later.

Sure it's a fictionalized version of the life of the great French writer Emile Zola, however, great fiction can make a great film and that is the case with The Life of Emile Zola. One may forget that this film was released in 1937 when anti-Semitism was again sweeping the continent of Europe, and for that very reason, the word "Jew" is never mentioned and we are only given a short visual reference. To avoid lawsuits from their descendants, only Major Dort and Major Esterhazy names were specifically identified. Others are referred to as the Chief of Staff, the Minister of War, etc. Also, Dreyfus was not freed and restored to rank in 1902, the year of Zola's death, but in 1906 after being found guilty again in an 1899 retrial. These historical errors can be forgiven, because it's the films message which stands and given the current climate, the movie's message is all the more important.

The shifting focus of this film doesn't make it a frustrating experience for modern viewers. In fact, the film flows quite nicely: struggling writer, gets in trouble for his book, then the film follows Zola's success as he becomes a powerful force in society. Eventually we get to 1894, where many claim the film to zoom away from its subject, where the film begins to focus on Dreyfus. With that being said, if you sit down to watch The Life of Emile Zola, don't skip the first third of the movie, because it's every bit as moving and powerful as the dramatic court scene, most notably in the unforgettable self-defense scene in which Muni delivers an outstanding performance.

Unfortunately, had Muni not won the previous year for another biopic, The Story of Louis Pasteur, he would have received the Oscar for his portrayal of Zola. Muni was not only nominated for an Oscar for this role but also received awards from many critics groups. Today many dismiss the significant talent of Muni (one of films first devoted actors), however, one cannot deny he had a great deal with elevating the art of film acting.
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Still one of the best Hollywood docudramas
Mankin11 July 2000
Handsomely mounted in the Warner Brothers style of the 30's, and topped off with a stirring Max Steiner score, "The Life of Emile Zola" (***) remains a passionately engrossing experience. Refreshingly, the film admits upfront right after the opening titles that it's a fictionalization, something that isn't done nearly as often it should be in today's purportedly "true story" docudramas. (These days, this disclaimer is often buried in the fine print at the very end of the credits after nearly everyone has left the theater.) Even so, "Zola" remains remarkably true to the facts. It skips lightly over the author's early years in the first 20 minutes and then soars to gripping dramatic heights in the outrageous libel trial that Zola underwent after he published his celebrated "J'Accuse" which condemned the hypocrisy and corruption of the military establishment as it falsely accused high-ranking Captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason and then attempted a massive cover-up when it realized it had made a mistake. The movie has been criticized for underplaying the anti-semitic aspects of the Dreyfus prosecution, but it's implied quite neatly in the scene where the camera pans down Dreyfus's resume to his religion while one of his superiors marvels how "someone like that" could became an officer. The film does indulge in some pretty fancy compression towards the end. It implies that Dreyfus was reinstated in the Army right after returning from Devil's Island and on the same day as Zola's tragic accidental death. However, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the real facts are even more disturbing and incredible. In 1899 after his return, Dreyfus was retried and found guilty again by a court tribunal! However, he was pardoned by the President. He was finally cleared of all charges and reinstated in the service in 1906, four years after Zola's death in 1902. Interesting sidelight: Zola and his devoted wife had no children but he did carry on a 14-year affair with one of his housemaids that produced 2 children. I guess there's no way the Warner Brothers were going to complicate the image of their hero as a saintly crusader for truth and justice by including this spicy little domestic tidbit.
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This is a movie that defines the biopic
rollo_tomaso27 December 2000
Paul Muni, one of the five best actors EVER, is magnificent in recreating the life of one of France's most controversial literary figures. Zola reveals every facet of the great man's complex personality and personal successes and learning experiences in a manner that delivers rare insights and consummate entertainment to the audience at the same time. The supporting cast and the direction match Muni's magnificence to the best of their abilities every step of the way. I recommend this as one of the great forgotten films of all time.
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Memorable Courtroom Speeches
harry-7622 September 2003
Such occasions are not unlike great arias in operas: the stage lights softly dim and follow spot brightens as all cast characters (and audience) lean forward to focus on the delivery.

Such a moment occurs in "The Life of Emile Zola" as Paul Muni as Zola steps to the platform to deliver his courtroom defense speech. Against all the odds of a jeering mob and negative press, he proceeds to offer a seven minute oration.

The scene is a set-up for Muni, and the camera, editing, and staging are all designed for the actor to deliver his thespian goods. He doesn't disappoint.

Two other cinematic courtroom speeches are comparable: Alec Guiness as Benjamin Disraeli in "The Mudlark" (1950) enjoyed the rare opportunity of having his six minute, uninterrupted speech done in a single, slow tracking shot; and Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead" (1949) held a courtroom breathless for over five minutes, defending his act of poetic, if not Randian-judicial, justice.

In Muni's case, his defense scene turned out to be a highpoint of an intriguing acting career. From Yiddish theater to worldwide stardom--with fewer that two dozen films to his credit--Muni constantly enthralled some while leaving others doubtful.

What's undeniable about Muni is that he achieved stardom on his own power. He was able to convince a goodly number of people, both peers and public alike, that he was indeed not just a good but great actor.

While some held a sneaking suspicion that he was a wee bit of a poseur, having never formally studied his craft, it really doesn't matter. Muni didn't win his lucrative acting contracts--or his Academy Award honors--for nothing.

Personally, I enjoy his general work, being more partial to roles more close to his own than those of his elders. In latter cases I felt he often tended to go a bit over-the-top with "stereotypical mannerisms."

As Zola, though, his earnestness and determination proves convincing, and the film itself is peopled with a powerhouse cadre of Warner Bros. character players.

To the film's credit, a pre-enactment inscription admits to the intermingling of fiction with fact for dramatic purposes. This also relieves the production of accusations of historical inaccuracy.

All in all, "The Life of Emile Zola" is a most engrossing biopic of a courageous literary giant who placed the pursuit of justice above the receiving of worldly accolades.
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Fine acting, poor history
Erich-136 July 2000
I highly recommend "The Life of Emile Zola" for the brilliant performances of Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, and Joseph Schildkraut. (Although I still must admit I'm surprised by Schildkraut's Oscar victory...although he certainly does a good job as Alfred Dreyfus, the role doesn't really give him much opportunity to demonstrate his talents. Dreyfus is not shown in any depth; his role consists almost entirely of protesting his innocence and languishing in prison.)

Strong performances aside, though, I do have some problems with the film. It strikes me as very odd that a film that makes such a big deal about "the truth" is so hesitant at actually depicting it. One of the key issues of the Dreyfus affair, anti-semitism, is never even brought up. The only reference to Dreyfus' Judaism is a passing glimpse on his personnel papers. The filmmakers' reluctance to address such an important part of the story does a disservice to history.
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It has great passion, deep commitments, love, great music, and we get to know a bit more about French literature.
macpherr30 May 1999
William Dieterle directed this classic biography and was nominated for an Oscar for his work. This movie had ten Oscar nominations, and won best picture in 1938. Paul Muni (The Last Angry Man) was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Émile Zola, one of the foremost writers in France. Zola and his best friend and confident painter Paul Cezanne, played by Russian born actor Vladimir Sokoloff (Taras Bulba, For Whom The Bell Tolls), who attend the Moscow Academy of Dramatic Art. The story takes place in Paris in 1862. Paul Cezanne and Émile Zola were friends when both were starting their careers. Through ups and downs Zola became financially successful long before Cezanne. He was married and had a successful career as an author. Paul Cezanne then decided to live in the country far away from the city, and told Zola not to be part of the establishment but to fight for truth and justice again. Émile Zola is living comfortable and even getting fat, and is about to became a member of the French Academy for the utmost writers, and to get honored by the Nobel society. He is approached by Lucie Dreyfus, played by Gale Sondergaard (Anna and the King of Siam), whose husband was unjustly court martialed and sent to Devil's Island (Papillion's prison home) because he was accused of betraying his country by disclosing military secrets. Mr. Dreyfuss' case is one of those passionate cases where anti-Semitism is also an issue. It is unbelievable that this specially inhumane trial took place in France, nation for Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality. That what Zola was fighting for.

The music by Max Steiner is beautiful. He was also nominated for an Oscar for best music score. Anatole France is also part of the story. My favorite scenes: the folding umbrellas, Zola getting his first pay check as a best seller author, the conversations between Zola and Paul Cezanne. The determination of Ms. Dreyfuss and she goes to talk to Zola, her last hope. My favorite quotes: "There are times when the most courageous thing is to be cowardly". This is a great biography. It is a Schindler's list type of story! It has great passion, deep commitments, love, great music, and we get to know a bit more about French literature. Thanks to my dad, who was passionate for literature and majored in languages, I was brought up with a library of books where one could find the internationally acclaimed classics. Émile Zola's works were among dad's favorite. That was what made me purchase the tape. I highly recommend it. You can learn a lot from this movie!
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THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (William Dieterle, 1937) ***1/2
Bunuel197623 August 2006
Of Paul Muni's three biographical films made at Warner Bros. and directed by William Dieterle (the others were THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR [1936] and JUAREZ [1939]), this was the only one which had never been shown on TV in my neck of the woods; ironically, it was the first to make it to DVD - but, then again, it is the most highly-regarded of them! Still, given the film's reputation (Best Picture Oscar Winner, Leonard Maltin rates it **** in his "Movies & Video Guide"), I somehow expected a masterpiece - but, personally, I feel that Dieterle's THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941) and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) are greater achievements. Even so, it's been sometime since I watched a vintage old-style Hollywood film; of late, I've mostly been concentrating on Euro-Cult and World Cinema stuff - but, really, there's no beating the professionalism and sheer entertainment value of a product from the cinema's Golden Age!

The film strikes a good balance between Zola's literary career and his struggles for social justice: the latter is mostly devoted to the Dreyfus affair, a veritable cause celebre at the time (cinematically treated two more times in DREYFUS [1931] and I ACCUSE [1958], neither of which I've watched though the latter had turned up some years back on late-night Italian TV!), culminating in one of the finest courtroom scenes ever filmed. Production values are top-notch, the Oscar-winning script appropriately literate (though the constant speechifying and the film's two-hour length - by contrast, LOUIS PASTEUR had been less than 90 minutes but, then, the epic and star-studded JUAREZ was longer still - make for a somewhat heavy-going experience) and Dieterle's handling virtually impeccable; the only unpersuasive aspect, perhaps, is the one-dimensional portrayal of the corrupt French military who callously sent Dreyfus to Devil's Island for treason, and left him there to rot for years - even after they had found absolute proof of his innocence, because that would have meant admitting to a mistake!

The cast is filled with wonderful characters actors whose familiarity - and reliability - allows utmost audience involvement every step of the way, despite Hollywood's typically idealized viewing of events. Best of all, naturally, are Muni as Zola (simply brilliant, especially during his show-stopping speech at the trial, and who even ages convincingly!) and Schildkraut (a touching Dreyfus who, in spite of his relatively brief appearance, managed to walk off with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar - though, personally, I would have voted for H.B. Warner in LOST HORIZON [1937]!).

Unfortunately, the audio level on Warner's otherwise exemplary DVD is rather low; the supplements include three vintage shorts (described in more detail below), as well as the full 1-hour broadcast of a radio adaptation of the script (obviously compressed but also including some minor additions) - presented by Leslie Howard (who, at the end, even interviews William Dieterle!) and featuring Muni himself, accompanied by Josephine Hutchinson (stepping in for Gloria Holden, who had played Zola's wife in the film).
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Opulent, well-acted and quite enjoyable...but it's missing a very important part of the story!
MartinHafer21 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The first quarter of the film is a brief biography of most of the adult life of Zola. That's because the final portion centers on the last years of Zola's life and his attempt to gain Dreyfus his release from prison. Dreyfus had been sent to Devil's Island--convicted of sending French military secrets to foreign powers. Amazingly, when the true perpetrator was learned, the highest officers in the military decided NOT to punish the man responsible and keep Dreyfus in prison so they wouldn't lose face for convicting the wrong man!!

I really enjoyed "The Life of Emile Zola" though could see that a very important part of the story is missing. I am NOT talking about the film taking a few artistic liberties--I certainly expected that. Instead, I am talking about a deliberate effort by the studio to misrepresent a major part of the story to make it more palatable to the general public. You see, about 3/4 of the movie concerns Zola and the Dreyfus Affair--yet it really makes no real effort to talk about the heart of why Dreyfus was convicted for a crime he clearly did not commit--because he was a convenient scapegoat because he was Jewish. The film BRIEFLY mentions he was Jewish but completely downplays this angle--mostly because I assume they were afraid antisemites in the US and abroad might find this unacceptable. Sadly, it makes this exceptional film just a bit less exceptional.

What I liked about the film was the overall quality of the picture. It was well written, acted and just screams quality. Plus, compared to many other biopics of the era, this one is a little more accurate--as the facts of the story are essentially true (though rearranged and interpreted for dramatic effect). Still, I find it hard to believe it won the Oscar for Best Picture--though I must concede that Paul Muni was exceptional. If I could have picked, I would have given the nod to either "Lost Horizon" or "A Star is Born".
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A Well-Crafted, Worthwhile Memorial to Zola
Snow Leopard15 September 2004
This well-crafted film is a worthwhile memorial to Émile Zola, one of the finest writers of his era, and one who deserves to be better-known today outside of his own country. It seems likely that Zola, a naturalistic writer who always used lifelike, genuine characters who had both strengths and weaknesses, would probably have been satisfied with the way he is portrayed by Paul Muni and by the screenplay. Zola is shown not as a flawless hero or as a larger-than-life icon, but as a real person with a talent for writing, who was willing to struggle both to establish himself and to remain true to his principles.

The movie makes a good selection of events from Zola's life, looking both at his earlier years, when he was struggling to establish himself, and at his later years, when as a respected member of society he had to fight his own reluctance to remain true to his ideals. The supporting cast have smaller parts, but they generally do quite well. Vladimir Sokoloff has a couple of nice scenes as Cézanne, and his interactions with Muni are quite helpful in defining the main character, especially as he changes once attaining personal success. Joseph Schildkraut makes good use of his scenes as Dreyfus.

Zola's lifetime was also an interesting and often tumultuous period in France's own history, and the movie provides at least a small taste of that.

There was, for example, even more to the Dreyfus situation than is shown here, but it and other historical events are shown mainly as they involved Zola himself - otherwise, to do justice to the events in themselves, the movie would have had to be several times as long. There's plenty here as it is to make it worthwhile, both as a good drama and as a believable portrait of Zola.
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Rooting for the Underdog
carleeee8 July 2013
Émile is like the Julian Assange of 19th Century France, though certainly less dramatic. He comes under intense criticism as his books gain popularity and the censors are under pressure from the government and the French Army to stop them. The Dreyfus Affair was still well-known at the time of the film's release, but as a person watching for the first time 75 years later I got a little lost. I failed to see the connection between the two seemingly unrelated sub-plots and the ensuing period where there was little to no appearance of the film's namesake. This was eventually cleared up for me but the reliance on assumed knowledge was not very forward-thinking. One quibble is that the women did not seem to age, I had a similar complaint watching Cimarron; throughout the decades covered by the film Zola got older and cuddlier, Dreyfus aged even more...yet their wives hardly aged a day. I wish I knew their secret. Snaps for Joseph Schildkraut whose portrayal of Captain Alfred Dreyfus scored him an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actor. It was a good film and certainly highlighted the level of corruption in France at that time, as well as rooting for the underdog. I must procure one of Zola's books and check him out.
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A Life Worth Living - Zola Entertains As Few Biographies Can
movieman-20015 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
In a lucrative and highly successful career that saw him play everyone from Spanish savior, Juarez to a cutthroat gangster in Scarface, character chameleon Paul Muni became French novelist Emile Zola in "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937). This is perhaps the most legitimate and faithful - certainly, the most serious and stirring - biographical film to emerge from a major Hollywood studio, and so quite unlike anything that had ever been seen on the screen until that time.

Warner spared no expense in retelling Zola's early and lingering success as an author and tragic death in a house fire. Embarking in idyllic 1862's Paris with Zola's initial fame, the film delves compassionately into the morbid curiosity and infamous trial known as the Dreyfus Affair. Encouraged by confidant and contemporary, painter Paul Cezanne (Vladamir Sokoloff) to dispel his own comfortable success and, to stand up for truth and justice, Zola decides to take on the case of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), a war hero unjustly accused of disclosing military secrets and imprisoned on Devil's Island. There are so many powerful and haunting moments in this bio that it's hard to pinpoint exactly where its greatness derives. But it is perhaps best exemplified by the dynamic interactions between Zola and Cezanne. These lead into the beautifully realized and justly celebrated court room summation that, once seen, is not to be forgotten.

"There are times when the most courageous thing is to be cowardly" exclaims Zola...indeed. The quiet rectitude of "The Life of Emile Zola" is a distinct pleasure for classic cinema fans - neither embellished or flag waving, but just as emotionally satisfying and twice as likely to be championed well into the next century. The film's definite slant toward critiquing anti-Semitism is now a time capsule; foreshadowing the growing angst of nations and Nazi terror that was to engulf Europe and cast the world into its second great war. However, William Dieterle's direction is timeless, with slick panache that makes all his points but never heavy-handed or without style befitting a classic biography. The score, by luminary composer Max Steiner, is striking and poignant. In short, "The Life of Emile Zola" is befitting of the Oscar for Best Picture and very much a relic from Hollywood's golden age worthy of considerable and repeated re-examination.

Warner Home Video's DVD is a reason to stand up and cheer. While there are age related artifacts present throughout, and some scenes suffer from considerable grain, the overall image quality is solid, sharp and beautifully contrasted. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered with deep, rich blacks and, for the most part, solid clean whites. Certain brief sections appear to have been duped in from second or third generation elements, but, keeping in mind that the film is 70 plus year old, such lapses should easily be forgiven. The audio is mono but has been presented at an adequate listening level. A slight hiss is detected occasionally. Save a complete and costly digital restoration, no more could have been expected by the good people at Warners on this transfer. It is head and shoulders above anything the film has looked like in years. Extras include a rare audio only recording of Muni doing Zola on radio, a dramatic, and, a cartoon short subject. The one disappointment here is that no time was taken to do a featurette on the making of this classic film. Regardless, it comes highly recommended by this reviewer.
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Je Pardonne
rmax3048231 June 2013
Warning: Spoilers
You really have to like these Warner Brothers biographical movies from the 1930s. They're in black and white, true, and they may gloss events and invent speeches a little differently from the way you and I might, but they're -- well -- they're EDUCATIONAL. You can learn basic historical facts from them. This isn't an achievement to be taken lightly, not in a country in which 28% of voters believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, or in which a substantial number of students think Watergate took place before 1900.

I don't mean that the Warners' biopics were academic studies. Far from it. As here, we generally see a hero (or heroine) perform some socially disapproved of act and then being redeemed. He usually dies at the end, either with a peaceful smile on his face, his work on earth now being complete, or with a pen or a pistol in his hand, full of fight. Zola gets the pen treatment.

Emile Zola, author of any number of infrequently read French novels ("Nana" may be his best known), was a famous figure at the time of this story, the end of the 19th century, when he decided to take up the cause of Alfred Dreyfus, an innocent army officer who had been convicted of treason, partly because he was Jewish.

Zola and his big mouth intervene after Dreyfus is sent to "a living death" on Devil's Island. Zola writes an inflammatory newspaper article -- "J'Accuse," which the movie helpfully translates as "I Accuse" -- and provokes a suit for libel. The French Army is mostly a proud and cohesive group and although the evidence against Dreyfus was rigged, nobody wants to admit it. Do Zola's strenuous efforts pay off at the end? If they didn't, Warners wouldn't have made this movie.

The formula usually remained the same, with some variations. (Sometimes the resolute hero alienates a former friend, and so forth.) Paul Muni starred in more than one of them. He overacts, but that's part of getting the MESSAGE across. When he gives a rousing speech at the trial, he huffs and puffs, he waves his hands, his chin snaps up and down like a traveling block on an oil rig, and when he's not shouting, he's hissing his lines.

"The truth is on the march -- and nothing will stop it!", he says confidently. I don't think Emile Zola ever said any such thing. I have doubts that anyone, at any time in the course of human history, has ever said such a thing, although they might have written it in a pamphlet or as a line of dialog in an entertaining and educational movie.

Some may notice some irony in the fact that the Army convicted Dreyfus partly because of anti-Semitism but never wanted to admit it, while the movie hardly even mentions it because the studios didn't want to bring up the edgy subject.
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A Wonderful Life of Emile Zola ****
edwagreen12 January 2006
Marvelous historical biography of Emile Zola, splendidly played by Paul Muni.

Always for the poor person, Zola immerses himself in the Dreyfus Affair. Count Esterhazy, the guilty person, is successfully able to frame Dreyfus for passing secrets to the enemy during the Franco-Prussian War. What hurts the most is that Dreyfus, a high ranking official in the French army, was immediately condemned due to a wave of anti-semitism throughout France.

Zola shall fight for the exoneration of Dreyfus all the way. In his famous J'Accuse, he drives this goal into total action.

Joseph Schildkraut, as Dreyfus, won the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of the condemned man. You feel his hurt and ultimate triumph through every step of the way. His imprisonment at Devils Island is so realistic. His wife in all this is well played by actress Gale Sondergaard, who shed her usual evil-like performances and turned in a remarkable one as the grief stricken faithful wife of the apparently hopeless Dreyfuss.

When Dreyfus is ultimately exonerated, tragedy strikes. Zola dies accidentally from poisonous gas seeping through his home. He may be gone but his legacy would live on.
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Important Film From the 1930s.
tfrizzell3 July 2002
Paul Muni (Oscar-nominated) stars as the titled character in this very good Best Picture winner from 1937. The film is based on the famous French muckraker/author who fought against anti-semitism in the late-1800s and also fought to free the wrongly convicted Dreyfuss (Oscar-winner Joseph Schildkraut), who was sentenced to life on Devil's Island for giving out military secrets. Naturally he was framed by a high-powered French count and it was up to Zola to free him. The film is a genuine biopic that works due to an Oscar-winning screenplay, top-notch direction by the Oscar-nominated William Dieterle and the show-stopping performances of Muni and Schildkraut. High production values and nice cinematography make "The Life of Emile Zola" one of the best films of the 1930s. It is one of the least-known Best Picture winners and that is a shame. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
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A Muni-ficent Performance!
LCShackley23 October 2007
I don't know enough of the details of Zola's life, and the Dreyfus case, to make historical observations. But simply as a film, ZOLA is a superb example of how Hollywood can occasionally reach a height of inspiration. The script is extremely literate, the plot is compelling, and the performers are top-notch, especially Muni, who was robbed by the Academy. His handling of the character through several stages of life, and the wide range of emotions called for, was a praiseworthy effort.

Some may say that the film loses focus when the Dreyfus affair takes over the plot thread from the narration of Zola's life as a writer. I see it rather as the summation of Zola's life. He has struggled from obscurity to wealth and fame by exposing the social ills of his time in his controversial novels and articles. But as Cezanne subtly points out, Zola has gotten rich and fat and that only leads to a dulling of talent. The Dreyfus affair is Zola's chance to prove that what he has written, he also truly believes himself. His defense of Dreyfus is the capstone of his work.

This is one of the earliest films to tackle the sensitive topic of how much the government is willing to do to cover up its own faults. As such, it is valuable viewing for thinking people today. It's a shame that the studio wasn't bold enough to tackle what was really the central issue of the trial: Dreyfus's identity as a French Jew, and the rampant anti-Semitism of Parisian society, which continues today.

When you watch ZOLA, keep in mind that to the 1937 audience, the Dreyfus trial was as recent an event as the assassination of Martin Luther King is to us today. It looks like an antique costume drama here in 2007, but in its day, it was still hot enough news that the studio had to leave some names out of the story.
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Paul Muni and William Dieterle working together to make the greatest of biopics.
clanciai22 September 2017
This is probably both William Dieterle's and Paul Muni's best film. It is monumental in its towering pathos of justice, which actually reduces Zola to a mere second character, while the central character is the awesome Dreyfus affair with its character assassination by intentional gross injustice. It was the greatest judicial scandal in the 19th century and perhaps in history, and it is very well presented in the film, especially by minor details, as the scenes from Devil's Island, when Dreyfus fettered to his bed (for security) tries to read Zola's book under his bed and finds it infested with insects, and when his release is illustrated by his incredulousness, walking out of his cell again and again, and returning in to walk out once again.

The first quarter of the film is the weakest and least historically correct, "Nana" was far from Zola's first literary success and actually only a minor novel compared to "Gervaise" and "Germinal" for instance, which are not even mentioned. The last three quarters of the film are all about the Dreyfus affair, crowned with Zola's glowing articles and speeches in court, splendidly delivered by Paul Muni, well aware of what opportunity he had here to excel himself in acting and making more than the best of it.

All other actors are excellent as well and startlingly convincing every one of them, from Esterhazy and the generals to the ladies and wives, while Cézanne alone is a little shadowy.

It's a tremendous film, I saw it as a child 55 years ago and have never forgotten it, and at last I found an opportunity to see it again, and it was exactly equally impressing and moving. William Dieterle made many excellent films, he was German and worked with Murnau, Max Reinhardt, Marlene Dietrich (co-director with Reinhardt in the glorious "Midsummer Night's Dream") and finalized his career in Hollywood with unsurpassed gems like "Love Letters" and "Portrait of Jennie" with Jennifer Jones. They are very different from his great biopics of the 30s, of which this Dreyfus film is the towering masterpiece.
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Couldn't Address the Anti-Semitism in 1937
Hitchcoc16 February 2017
I really like this film. Paul Muni plays the consummate hero in this as he does everything within his power to overturn the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, whose only crime was being Jewish. The man who actually committed the crime was out enjoying himself with his freedom intact. Despite every effort of the French military getting in the way of his efforts, he never gives in, even though his status as the most popular author in France is at stake. What started out as an effort to simply approach the law becomes his life's work. This case became one of the most high profile in European history. The reason the movie pulled punches, however, was because Dreyfus was a Jew but most didn't want to recognize the oppression. Of course, Hitler was plying his trade.
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Good movie . . . inaccurate title.
The_Film_Cricket12 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
The Life of Emile Zola tells a compelling story, but it has a title that is not exactly accurate. This is not a story of the life of Emile François Zola, the 19th century writer who railed against the injustices in his native France in books like "Nana" and "Germinal." Actually it is the specific story of the trial and injustice done to Alfred Dreyfuss, the blameless officer of the French army who spent 4 years confined to Devil's Island on trumped up charges of treason. Zola's part in his trial is small at best.

In all honesty, this is probably best. Zola (played here in an Oscar nominated performance by Paul Muni) was a figure whose writing was filled with fire and energy, but displaying the writing process on screen is a bit difficult, not to mention dull. Zola speaks of his philosophies and then we see the line-up of his books (which is meaningless if you haven't read them), we see eager patrons buying up copies while others rail against Zola for spreading slander against France.

Most of this takes place in the film's opening as we meet the young Zola, a poor Frenchman shivering in the cold while his blood boils over the injustices from a cruel and indifferent government more interested in its image then in its citizens. He shares a drafty attic with his lifelong friend, the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). Their friendship is hardly explored and is probably more interesting than any other aspect of his life.

Zola's story takes a backseat once Dreyfus is arrested on a charge of treason. A letter is intercepted and suspicions run that an unidentified officer in the French Army is a spy. The top brass run down the list of possible suspects and only draw Dreyfus' name because he is easy to accuse (the film very quickly and quietly points out the fact that he was chosen as a scapegoat because he was Jewish). Dreyfus is arrested, run through a kangaroo court, stripped of rank and given a life sentence on Devil's Island off the coast of French Guyana in South America.

Zola's role in the trial is meager at beast. We see the trial being conducted, in the which judge continually silences the defense and keeps them from presenting key evidence that would prove Dreyfus to be innocent. Emile Zola's role in the trial it to sit by in the courtroom until it is his turn to give the closing statement.

The story of The Dreyfus affair is far more interesting than anything we learn about Emile Zola. Paul Muni occupies the title role and he does a fine job, but his interpretation of Zola is mainly just a man of good faith and common sense who spoke softly and ran for his pen when a mood struck him. His performance is nearly identical to that one he played a year earlier in The Story of Louis Pasteur. We don't really get to know the inner-man so much as just the red letter details of his life. We do get the information that he was initially uninterested in speaking on Dreyfus' behalf but there is hardly any real reason. As for Dreyfus, we never get to know him either. We see him unjustly arrested, tried, convicted and jailed. A few times we see him in his cell, but there is never a sense of who the man was outside of his circumstances.

Still the movie is compelling in its portrait of how the French government was able to hide facts, silence witnesses and overlook evidence. This may or may not be factual but it makes for an interesting story. It is possible that the story was written with the current world situation in mind. At the outbreak of World War II, with the Nazis bulldozing all over Europe, the story of injustice and government corruption couldn't have been timelier
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In Me You See The Honor of France
bkoganbing13 June 2007
The title for this review is quote I read from Charles DeGaulle discussing the responsibilities he felt in the role that fate thrust upon him. DeGaulle was a military man who stepped up to the plate when his country's fortunes were at their darkest. A whole lot of other more important army figures could have done what he did, but no one stepped to the plate like that courageous if sometimes exasperating junior brigadier general.

Another guy who stepped to the plate for France was not a military man, in fact it was the army he took on. The Life of Emile Zola is the story about that man, brought beautifully to life by Paul Muni who was a modern writer who first fought to write life as he saw it and not through some romantic gauze as was popular in the first half of the 19th century. His writings led to a lot of social reform in France.

Yet half the film is dedicated to Zola's last struggle, taking up the cause of wrongly convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar of 1937 who when treason was discovered was singled out because he was a Jew as the fall guy.

Although Hollywood tends to over-dramatize in many cases this is one where they are telling the absolute truth. I find it hard to fathom myself that even after proof was brought to the French Army's attention that another was in fact the guilty party, they persisted in promoting the fiction about Dreyfus's guilt. Anti-Semitism certainly ran deep in many quarters of French society, the military being only one of them. Keeping faith with prejudice was more important than getting at the truth and getting justice for a wrongly accused man.

Muni's address to the court during the libel suit trial the army brought against him is classic. Though many feel his style of acting is outmoded, I for one miss that. I can't think of a player today who could move the audience as Muni did in that address. He was nominated for Best Actor, but he had won that award the previous year for The Story of Louis Pasteur and in 1937 was beaten by Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous.

However The Life of Emile Zola won for Best Picture of 1937 and also won for Best adapted Screenplay. I can't think of better praise to give the film than to say that if Emile Zola could have been interviewed he'd have given the film an enthusiastic rave.

France like a lot of countries has had people come to their leadership in an hour of need. In the 15th century it was a peasant girl whom we know as Joan of Arc. During the occupation by the Nazis, France's honor was preserved by Charles DeGaulle. And at a time when corruption and prejudice poisoned the French society, it wasn't a peasant saint or a military leader, but a man of learning and letters who would not give up until truth and justice won out.
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Great movie
alangalpert12 April 2010
This is an extraordinary picture, with wonderful performances. It should be seen by anyone who likes a good drama, but especially by someone who is unfamiliar with the Dreyfus Affair, as it was called. My only complaint is that the title is somewhat misleading. We don't learn a great deal about Zola's life, except that he shared an apartment in Paris with Paul Cezanne, wrote his first major novel about a prostitute he befriended when she was running from the police, was a champion of the poor and downtrodden, and became wealthy from his many books. Eighty-five minutes of the two hour long movie is devoted to the Dreyfus case and Zola's involvement with it, so the title should have reflected that.

Paul Muni deserved to win an Oscar for his performance, which he didn't, although he was nominated. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, as well.
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Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1937
gpeevers11 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
A biography of sorts about the noted French author and journalist Émile Zola (Paul Muni) who is perhaps best remembered for his activism.

The film recounts the bulk of Zola's life fairly quickly, beginning with the impoverished period of his life when he became friends with the painter Paul Cézanne. There are a few scenes involved with the publication of one of his best known works the novel Nana, and then we fairly quickly move forward to his involvement in the infamous Dreyfus affair. There is little to no discussion of Zola's other works or his journalism.

The most important part of the film is Zola's impassioned defense of Captain Dreyfus a Jewish officer wrongly convicted of treason. Zola wrote an open letter to the French President to which the media attached the headline "J'accuse!" (I accuse!). For this Zola would be charged with libel and in the course of his defense he would attempt to expose to the world the truth behind the conviction of Dreyfus. The aspects of anti-Semitism in the case are barely acknowledged in the film.

While I was impressed with the both performances and the production values (particularly for the period) of the film, I did find something lacking. Perhaps its simply the fact that there have been so many great court room dramas produced subsequently.

Paul Muni gives a powerful and effective performance though his style may appear dated to some. Over the course of the film Zola's appearance changes considerably and Muni does an impressive job of virtually disappearing into the role. Muni had one the Oscar in the previous year (for another biographical role in The Story of Louis Pasteur) and would be nominated another 4 times as well, including for this role.
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Muni Was A Big, Big Star In The 1930s
ccthemovieman-119 February 2008
Kudos to the patience of Paul Muni, who spent hours and hours in the makeup room each day to look the part of Zola. Muni was the one of the biggest stars in the 1930s and I wonder how many people today -other than classic movie buffs - know anything about it. He was a giant in the business for at least a decade. He could have won the Academy Award for this performance, which would have given him two in a row, as he won it for playing Louis Pasteur the year before. My own opinion is that while he tended to overact a bit, I still think he was one of the great actors of the "Golden Age." Whatever part he played; you were riveted to the screen watching him.

Unlike the Pasteur role, I thought this story smacked of a little too much of what we've seen in the last 60 years: going overboard to make a Liberal hero. Even in 1937, Hollywood couldn't suppress its disdain for police or for the military, here making it a point to tell us how "corrupt" those organizations are. Filmmakers just love it when authority is challenged and defeated. In that regard, this film is way ahead of its day since we've seen this big-time since the 1960s.

However, it must be noted the facts support this story. It also does not in any way diminish Zola's accomplishments as a social reformer, getting rid of certain evils. Good for him! I wish they had spent more time showing that, than concentrating on one trial.
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kenjha5 December 2009
The first third of this biography, devoted to Zola's rise from poverty to fame, is rather dull. It picks up steam with the introduction of the Dreyfus affair, wherein a Jewish Army captain is falsely accused of treason, although the anti-semitism angle is ignored by the film. Muni is terribly hammy in the title role, playing Zola as a pompous blow-hard. As he showed in "The Good Earth" the same year, the actor was never able to adapt his theatrical acting to the screen. Schildkraut is OK as Dreyfus, a performance that won him an Oscar, but Sondergaard overacts as his wife. This overcooked drama beat out the likes of "Stage Door" and "The Awful Truth" to win the Best Picture Oscar.
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Should have been titled "Dreyffus Affair"
lampic6 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Very interesting old biographical movie that starts very badly,following every Hollywood cliché (young,idealistic and hungry Zola meets a prostitute called Nana,writes a novel about her and suddenly became rich and famous) than turns into high suspense court drama. At first, I was watching it in disbelief, during Zola's hungry years, wondering about deliberate historical mistakes and what would Hollywood make out of my life,for example (Zola was already very successful long before "Nana") than I realized script intentionally glosses over his early years and simplifies everything in order to get to the point & heart of the story, famous Dreyfuss Affair.

Everything that was false and fake in the beginning, suddenly gave place to completely truthful and realistic description of political scandal that was shaking France for twelve years at the end of 19th century - director Henry Blanke went into such details that more I read about real Dreyfuss Affair, more I understand this is exactly how it happened. Dreyfuss arrest, his public arrest, the way officer broke Dreyfuss's sword on his knee before proclaiming him a traitor, the fact that Dreyfuss and his wife were not allowed to talk in private during her visits to jail, his conditions on Devil's Island (legs chained on a bed,living in a stone house,completely isolated from the world), Zola's involvement and the whole public circus around the court, this is exactly how it happened. I am actually almost sure that Zola was murdered later (it wasn't accidental, his chimney was blocked and forever made me paranoid about open fire).

The movie eventually became so interesting that I almost forgot to notice how much Paul Muni (Zola) changes during the story - he starts as young and skinny dreamer and later turns into happy,grandfatherly type visually very similar to historical Zola - his acting is perhaps hammy occasionally but excellent,its a true "Oscar" worthy role. Joseph Schildkraut (Dreyffus) is so similar to real Dreyfuss that its almost spooky. Because the story has so many judges, lawyers, politicians and army officers, two women's roles are completely pushed in the background, so wives of Zola (Gloria Holden from "Dracula's daughter") and Dreyffus (Gale Sondergaard from "The Letter") are unfortunately purely decorative and have nothing much to say, specially Holden who basically only smiles trough the whole movie.

Excellent court drama that did not need fictional introduction to early Zola - they could simply call the movie "Dreyfuss Affair" and start from there.
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Decent Biopic, But Doesn't Live Up to Its Reputation
TheExpatriate7008 November 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The Life of Emile Zola is a good if rather bland and simplistic film biography of the famous author, with a great performance by Paul Muni. It gives the basic facts about Zola's life, even as it omits many of the social issues he confronted and fictionalizes other aspects of his life.

The strongest part of the film is Paul Muni's performance. He succeeds in embodying Zola both as a young man and an older, established author, bringing a genuine sense of passion to the role. There are also good performances by Joseph Schildkraut and Gale Sondergaard.

The film starts out quite well, focusing on how Zola struggled against government censors and the writing of Nana. However, the film then skips a large portion of Zola's life, signified by a series of book titles going by the screen. I would have enjoyed more information about this section of Zola's life.

The plot then flashes forward to the Dreyfus Affair, handling it with middling results. Although the film makes us feel for Dreyfus and his family, it fails to deal with anti-Semitism in a meaningful way. The film only twice hints at the role of Dreyfus's ethnicity / religion in the case, once when we see the word "Jew" written on his personnel file, the second time when an effigy of Dreyfus is shown as a Jewish stereotype. Given what was going on in Europe in 1937, it would have been topical for the film to examine those issues.

Also, the film fictionalizes of a number of things, particularly towards the end. It gives the impression that Dreyfus was immediately exonerated after being freed, when that actually happened several years later. Furthermore, when Zola dies, the film depicts a nation uniformly in mourning, when actually many of Zola's enemies publicly rejoiced.

In the end, The Life of Emile Zola is a good classic style biopic that may seem dated and simplistic to modern tastes.
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