This blog is well over a year old now, but I’ve only reviewed three other films from the 1930s (and only The Birth of a Nation from before the 30s). I have sort of a complicated relationship with movies (specifically dramas) that came out before the mid-1960s. They have their own idealistic, nostalgic beauty, but more often than not, it’s their same idealism and simplicity that I found to be terribly boring and overdone in the face of the more mature and sophisticated narrative and cinematic devices that have come to define top-tier dramas since the 1960s. However, when I find dramas from that era that I love, I form an almost instant attachment with them because their ability to transcend time and space. If their story or message or simple style seems relevant and entertaining despite being over 60 years old, that’s a fairly massive achievement and it signifies their deserved place in the canon of film beyond the simple fact of their age. Casablanca fits in this category. The films of Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder are other notable timeless works. Well, I now have another film that despite its almost Aaron Sorkin-esque romanticism speaks across the chasms of decades (the film is over 70 years old) with a story that is as relevant today as when it first came out. While it suffers from some of the flaws inherent to the biopic genre, The Life of Emile Zola is a striking statement on our civic duty to stand up against injustice and government hypocrisy.
In the mid 1800s, French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) and his closest friend, artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), are starving for their craft in the impoverished streets of Paris. Emile Zola writes by night and works by day as a clerk at a bookstore where his “slanderous” (i.e. true) attacks on the French government and the social injustices inherent in French life mark him as an active enemy of the state and cost him his job. When a random encounter with a French prostitute inspires him to write a novel that also works as an expose on the harsh realities of French working girls, Zola is suddenly thrust into the international literary spotlight and enjoys a truly prolific career as one of France’s most celebrated authors. He is essentially the Dickens of France in the way that he explores the less glamorous side of the exploding Industrial Revolution. However, in his success, Zola becomes content to while away his years in contented satisfaction despite the condemnations of his former best friend Cezanne who continues to pursue art above wealth. Zola finds himself back in the midst of another moral crisis when a Jewish captain in the French army, Albert Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), is falsely accused of being a spy and a massive government conspiracy arises to frame him for the crime rather than face a more politically tumultuous reality of admitting they charged the wrong man. When Zola embarks on his mission to clear the name of Capt. Dreyfus, he risks not only his legacy among the French people but even his own freedom when the French government accuses him of treasonous libel and places him on trial.
Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film despite the fact that he was only in the movie for at most fifteen minutes or so of actual screen time. Despite the briefness of his presence on camera, he gave a deeply emotional performance that was certainly helped with the effective close-ups of his subtly emotive face. Emile Zola is without question the main character of the film, but the trials of Capt. Dreyfus propel the film’s second half and it’s very important that we care deeply about this unjustly accused man, and Schildkraut aptly garnered my sympathy with his characterization of heartbroken betrayal. However, Paul Muni was the real star of the film, and while I haven’t seen Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (who beat out Muni for the Best Actor Oscar that year), I can say that Paul Muni gave an all-star performance as the titular Emile Zola. It may have had some of the over-the-topness and emoting that characterized the big screen in the decade following the transition from silent films to “talkies,” but there was a genuine passion and intelligence in his role and Muni captured the moral outrage that any rational and ethical man in those circumstances would feel. I haven’t enjoyed watching a character give speech after speech in a movie like this since the last time I watched To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch. Muni’s version of Zola might seem very old-fashioned by modern standards, but even though I knew his acting didn’t really jibe with the more naturalistic modern conventions, I still enjoyed the theatrics and fire he brought to the role.
For the reasons laid out earlier, I was actually dreading putting this in my DVD player. It sounded terribly boring and the plot description on Netflix made me fear that this was going to be a film with an era-relevant theme that wasn’t going to translate well to the modern era. I was completely wrong. Whether it was Emile Zola’s position as a 19th century Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Julian Assange or the way that justice and truth were being railroaded in the vague name of the state, this film is perfectly relevant in the post-Bush era of endless government secrecy. There was a scene during one of the trials where Zola’s lawyer requested the presence of a string of high-ranking army officials to testify, and they all used some imaginary government immunity to not participate. It was like a scene right out of the investigations into torture and inethical spying against the Bush administration. I could just hear Alberto Gonzalez and the rest of the Bush administration saying “I do not recall” over and over again. Similarly, while the film didn’t outright make Dreyfus’ Jewish ancestry the reason why he was being chosen as the scapegoat, the film definitely maintained that subtext (very subtly), and in an era where our government and our nation like to blame one ethnic group or another for our nation woes rather than face harsher truths, it all rang amazingly true. Yes, the script took some liberties with history (though I don’t know how many), and there was a lot of speechifying in this film, but as a product of a day when movies were nearly synonymous with the stage, I thought it was all entertaining and illuminating.
If you’re a fan of classic dramas, The Life of Emile Zola is an obvious pick considering its place as one of the most acclaimed biopics of the early days of cinema. However, if you’re like me and think film noir was the only consistently watchable non-comedy genre from that day, The Life of Emile Zola deserves your attention because of the renewed sense of urgency and relevancy it holds in the modern political climate. The film may paint Zola in the most romantic light possible without exploring any of his potential flaws and so it paints its hero in a very favorable light, but even without getting an entire picture, it’s a fascinating look at a page of history that hasn’t been done time and time again. The acting is excellent (by the standards of theatre anyways) and it was a surprisingly well-shot and well-edited film from this era. If you’ve ever found yourself in a liberal uproar because of social inequality or the government sacrificing justice in the name of a “greater good” that only really profits them, The Life of Emile Zola is an astounding artifact of the dawning of the silver screen to show how some issues have never really gone away.
Final Score: A-