Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Émile Zola (2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902) was an influential French novelist, the most important example of the literary school of naturalism, and a major figure in the political liberalization of France.

Literary output

More than half of Zola's novels were part of a set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Set in France's Second Empire, the series traces the 'hereditary' influence of violence, alcoholism, and prostitution in two branches of a single family: the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts, for five generations.

As he described his plans for the series, "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world."

Zola and the painter Paul Cézanne were friends from childhood and in youth, but broke in later life over Zola's fictionalized depiction of Cézanne and the Bohemian life of painters in his novel L'Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886).

Activism on behalf of Captain Dreyfus

He risked his career and even his life on 13 January 1898, when his "J'accuse" was published on the front page of the Paris daily, L'Aurore. The newspaper was run by Ernest Vaughan and Georges Clemenceau, who decided that the controversial story would be in the form of an open letter to the President, Félix Faure. "J'accuse" accused the government of antisemitism and of wrongfully placing the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus in jail. The case, known as the Dreyfus affair, had divided France deeply between the reactionary army and church, and the more liberal commercial society. The ramifications continued for many years; on the 100th anniversary of Zola's article, France's Roman Catholic daily paper, La Croix, apologized for its antisemitic editorials during the Dreyfus Affair. Zola was a leading French thinker and his letter formed a major turning-point in the affair.

Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel on 9 June 1899, and was convicted on 23 February, sentenced, and removed from the Legion of Honor. He declared that Dreyfus' conviction and removal to a prisoners island came after a false accusation of espionage and was a miscarriage of justice. Rather than go to jail, he fled to England. But soon he was allowed to return in time to see the government fall.

The government offered Dreyfus a pardon (rather than exoneration), which he could accept and go free and so effectively admit that he was guilty, or face a re-trial in which he was sure to be convicted again. Although he was clearly not guilty, he chose to accept the pardon. Zola said, "The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it." In 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the Supreme Court.

Zola died in Paris on 29 September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a stopped chimney. He was 62 years old. His enemies were blamed, but nothing was proven. (Decades later, a Parisian roofer claimed on his deathbed to have closed the chimney for political reasons.) Zola was initially buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, but on 4 June 1908, almost six years after his death, his remains were moved to the Panthéon.

In January 1998, President Jacques Chirac held a memorial to honor the centenary of J'Accuse. (from Wikipedia)


The biographical film The Life of Emile Zola was directed by William Dieterle. The film focuses mainly on Zola's involvement in the Dreyfus Affair. Starting in Paris in 1862 it deals, among other events, with the Dreyfus Affair and anti-semitism in France.

Paul Muni stars as Emile Zola in film that won three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay and Supporting Actor. The film tracks Zola through his friendship with Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), his efforts to expose social ills that plagued France's lower classes, and his battle against the anti-Semitic scapegoating of Captain Dreyfus.

“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. He is approached by Lucie Dreyfus, who's husband was unjustly court martialed and sent to Devil's Island because he was accused of betraying his country by disclosing military secrets.” Written by Rosemea D.S. MacPherson (from imdb)

A review from TvGuide: “Along with George Arliss, Paul Muni was Hollywood's designated portrayer of Great Men. He appeared as Louis Pasteur (an Oscar-winning role), as Benito Juarez, as French explorer Pierre Radisson, as Chopin's teacher Joseph Elsner, and as Napoleon and Schubert (among others) in SEVEN FACES. So it's no surprise to find him playing Emile Zola--and wonderfully--in this fine film. Literate and powerful, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA was a huge box-office success, although its subject matter--the French novelist's part in the Dreyfus Affair--hardly seemed promising in that regard. The film introduces an anguished Zola censured by the French government and public for his frank treatment of squalid life and social problems in his novel Nana (based on his own experiences with a prostitute, played by O'Brien-Moore). As time passes, though, he is increasingly heralded as France's greatest writer and as the champion of those who cannot speak for themselves during France's Second Empire. Zola's greatest challenge comes when he fights for the freedom of the framed Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus (Schildkraut). Pen in hand, Zola writes, "J'accuse..."

The film's script was originally shown to Ernst Lubitsch at Paramount, who liked it but felt he had no actor in his stable who could do justice to the main character. He generously passed it on to producer Henry Blanke of Warners, which had the services of Muni, Lubitsch's choice for the part. As on so many other occasions, Lubitsch was right; Muni triumphs completely in this demanding role. As was his custom, Muni steeped himself in his character, reading all of Zola's works, extensively researching the Dreyfus case, and attempting many different makeup variations before settling on his final choice. The other actors are equally fine, with Holden in particular a warm glow as Zola's wife. It's nice to see Sondergaard in a rare sympathetic part and, as her husband, the center of the controversy, Schildkraut rivals Muni in effectiveness. Scene after scene of the nervous and later numbed Dreyfus being stripped of his honor haunt this film and Schildkraut was the only possible choice for the year's Supporting Actor Oscar. The movie itself, though it deviates from the facts a bit, is basically faithful to history and well scripted, without extraneous characters or plot lines. The period details are all authentic, with no expense spared to recreate the settings. Director Dieterle, one of Hollywood's best, handles the script beautifully, especially in the brilliant courtroom scenes, and the anti-Semitic nature of Dreyfus's persecution is also conveyed potently, though circumspectly. (We never hear the word Jew.) Skip the 1958 remake, I ACCUSE.

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