Saturday, January 29, 2011
The Best Picture Countdown #10: The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Note: this post modified from a previously published post
Director: William Dieterle
Starring: Paul Muni
“What does it matter if an individual is shattered if only justice is resurrected?” Though ostensibly a biopic, The Life of Emile Zola is really only concerned with Zola’s life insofar as it facilitates an exploration of the principle at the heart of this question. As a man of means and access to a public forum, Zola sees it as his duty to shine a light on injustice, even if it puts himself at risk. The film is much more concerned with the idea of exposing corruption for the good of society than it is with the facts of Zola’s life, though it does go through the motions of a few conventions of the biopic genre.
The story begins with Zola (Paul Muni) as a starving young artist, burning the pages he’s written La Boheme-style for warmth. The film more or less ploughs through his early years, giving us glimpses of the work he does as a journalist which in turn inspires his novels. Those novels make him wealthy but also put him on the radar of people in power, who see him as an agitator with a troubling habit of exposing the various ways that the aristocracy takes advantage of the lower classes. Zola won’t be silenced by threats and keeps on writing gritty, realistic stories which expose the nasty underbelly of society, eventually becoming an influential and respected man of letters. Just as Zola is settling into a quiet life out of the public eye, Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is arrested and tried for treason.
It will be years before Zola actually becomes involved in Dreyfus’ defence, years that Dreyfus spends imprisoned on an island, his clothes becoming rags, bugs infesting his cell. Mrs. Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard) is eventually able to appeal to Zola by showing him proof that not only was her husband framed, but that officers of the highest rank are aware of it and, indeed, helped to accomplish it. Zola publishes his famous “I Accuse” paper which results in the military taking him to court and the pubic turning violently against him. The trial is a joke, destined to find Zola guilty and exonerate the military of any wrongdoing, but Zola maintains his cool throughout and when the time comes, delivers a speech imploring the jury to save the army by holding it accountable for the crimes committed in its name. Zola loses the trial but, as he states, “truth is on the march” and once the truth starts to come out, there’s no stopping it.
The movie plays fast and loose with history, but that doesn’t particularly bother me. History unfolds in a calamitous way that doesn’t lend itself easily to narrative, particularly to the more compact narratives required in film. So, if a movie needs to nip and tuck the facts for the sake of telling a good story, I think that’s forgivable. That being said, I think it’s a bit disingenuous for the film to make such a show of championing truth when it goes out of its way to avoid mentioning anti-Semitism, which was the defining factor in the real Dreyfus’ persecution. There is a brief mention that Dreyfus is Jewish, but the issue is thereafter glossed over, which is a shame since a real exploration of the issue would have added depth to the story and made it all the more powerful.
While Zola is without question the protagonist of the film, I don’t think that it should necessarily be considered a biopic because the only real purpose of the scenes depicting Zola’s early life are to establish him as a man who holds the pursuit of truth in the highest regard. The centrepiece of the story – the trial and, in particular, Zola’s speech about the right of the people to call those in power to account – isn’t about Zola at all, but military corruption. That speech, it must be said, is very effectively rendered. Director William Dieterle places the camera where the jury box would be so that Muni delivers the speech directly to the audience and he speaks so eloquently and authoritatively that it’s easily one of the best speeches in film. Muni, who plays Zola as both a young and an old man, is effective throughout but seems to be most alive as the older Zola, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the film doesn’t limit its focus solely to the Dreyfus affair.