The Life of Emile Zola (1937)


You know, the tough part about pairing movies that I’ve never seen for this blog project is that films that seem thematically linked might end up being nothing alike. Based on their summaries, I’d decided to look at Amadeus and The Life of Emile Zola together. Both are biopics about artists (one a writer, another a master of music) – it appeared straightforward. Now that I’ve seen them, though, I realize they’re wildly different.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about these films, both as separate entities and in conversation with each other (though I’m the puppeteer holding them up face to face). Each is representative of its era, of the style of film of its day, and as a result, each film varies in which elements are most prominent or meaningful. At the same time, though, both do revolve in some way around the idea of the relationship between artists, and how the competition or inspiration of friends can bring out the best or worst in us.

A couple of early scenes feature Paul Cezanne, painter and one-time roommate of Zola’s, who argues in favor of the starving artist stereotype. Once Zola finds success selling his books, Cezanne figures he’s grown complacent, no longer willing to fight The Man for his principles. Zola is your typical hippie-cum-yuppie.

I’ll be honest: I had only the vaguest sense of who Emile Zola was before watching this movie. And by that I mean that the best I could do was identify him as a writer. From France. He lived and wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century, which led me to the realization that I have only a vague sense of European history around that time. France was fighting off skirmishes with Prussia/Germany. France was… a republic? Haven’t cleared all this up yet.

The truth is, we don’t see a lot of France through the years, because The Life of Emile Zola, contrary to its title, focuses primarily on a big controversy in the latter part of his life, the Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus was an army captain falsely convicted of treason and exiled to a prison on a Caribbean island (which doesn’t sound that bad). Meanwhile, the real traitor – a spy who shared military documents with Germany – is later discovered but exonerated in a vast cover-up. Zola gets involved in a last-ditch attempt to publicize the conspiracy in the interest of truth and justice, and is put on trial for his troubles. I’m a little fuzzy on the whys and wherefores, to be honest.

You see, as I discovered in my own research later (okay, Wikipedia research), the film conveniently leaves out the fact that Dreyfus was pegged for the crime largely because he was Jewish. However, that fact was deliberately removed from the movie, supposedly because the producers wanted the film to perform well in Nazi Germany. There’s a strange bit of irony in that, especially considering the way Zola champions truth and justice.

What was striking about this film, particularly in contrast with Amadeus, is that focus is much more on the philosophical rather than the emotional impact. Zola is more of an image than a human, spouting off impassioned speeches. There’s barely a sense of who he is as a person, or what motivates the characters. Honestly, Dreyfus is the emotional heart of the movie, and we hardly see him. It’s an odd sort of biopic.

Is one of these dudes-with-a-mustache a traitor to France?  My guess is it’s that one.


Theme: Artistic friendship

First time watching? Yes

Final Verdict: J’Accuse … snooze?