He was a moment of the conscience of man.
The Dreyfus Affair, occurring through the 1890’s, began when evidence was uncovered pertaining to military secrets sent to the Germans. Those who had access to this information included Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French officer. Confirmation bias, indeed.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937), directed by William Dieterle, starts off with a conspicuous caveat that the film, though based in history, has been “fictionized”–a word I like because it seems so much more active and honest that “fictionalized”–something that I find very gratifying. Films today, of course, get an immediate $5 million bump if they’re “based on true events.” They then go on to stretch the word “based” beyond what I would call allowable nonsense. This borders on the oximoronic when considered alongside the “truth” of the events.
First, he fights the cold. Then he fights the censors. Then he fights France. Émile Zola (Paul Muni) is a Frenchie who hangs with Cézanne until he becomes too successful to stand. He was a constant critical thorn in the side of the establishment or its defenders. He was so prolific, his wrists could only thank divinity for being born well before the weblog. Part one of the movie is “Zola gets rich” and the second is “Zola gets self-righteous again.” He picked a good subject to be self-righteous about. Dreyfus was railroaded and then, when the real culprit was found out, whitewashed. Injustice, corruption, and cronyism all with a nice smattering of jingoism to keep it sweet. If the courtroom was half as unjust as the portrayal in this film, then…it was still pretty darn unjust. Bunch of loose-stooled Frenchman. I have no difficulty believing it. Ah yes, and where does he go when these cheese-eating surrender monkeys turn on the outer of truths? That’s right, London. Try to find a restaurant that serves frogs legs there, you barbarian! (I think you’ll find they’re made of lamb.)
This is a good movie and I’ll tell you why. Because plays into everything I think about French people. Even Zola, the hero, is not what I would carve into stone if asked to recreate a champion. He’s one of those people who does something nice or good to be recognized for it. Of most polemicists, this is true. He was also a novelist, but I’ll put that to one side because I haven’t read his stuff and the movie only goes so far to show us the titles and the wealth they provided. It isn’t obvious. He doesn’t ask for compliments. He doesn’t really ask for much. He just hears something outrageous and he rages out about it. What we hear of his great article J’Accuse, it’s virtually drivel and entirely self-indulgent. Conscience of man? No, just the outrage of one. Now, if the movie is accurate in its portrayal of the documentation Zola receives, then surely the documentation is the lead. Instead, “Since they dared, I too will dare.” It is his prick of conscience that require he act. There’s a nuance there and I may be too critical of what surely is a stylistic flourish. Still, when you’re revealing a grand conspiracy–what’s more, one that’s true–then directness and clarity are of greater importance. Nobody’s getting bored here.
This is the character Muni plays. Since it’s 1937, one does need to adjust for inflation. Or rather, deflation of the high winds that older styles of acting are wont to blow. I curse the man who created the pince-nez. They are constantly to be taken off and put back on in order to make points or show surprise. But that’s acceptable. The pacing and telling of the story were also acceptable considering the time, but don’t age well. That’s slightly overstating it. It’s still a good movie, whatever its date, and worth seeing, but I would be lying if I said it stood up to Gone with the Wind (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), or The Thin Man (1934). These are the first stops in 1930’s films (and I anticipate Duck Soup (1933) will join them).
An interesting note. This film was made in 1937, a year before the Munich Agreement. In the latter half of this movie, set in the very early 1900’s, Zola calls for peace and warns of the evils of war. It’s conspicuous. One explanation is that Zola is predicting World War I and the film maker is simply underlining the insanity of the war. Another is that the film maker is foreseeing World War II brewing in Europe and is trying to forestall that conflict. As usual, I’m channeling Hitchens here, but I think it should be pointed out that all wars are evil–but some wars are only evil on one side. World War II, generally accepted as the example of a just war, is sometimes called out for the brutality of both sides and noted (correctly) that the holocaust is only a hind-sighted justification. We didn’t know about the holocaust during the war and it wasn’t a part of the propaganda. But it happened and it sanctifies the venture. But the war was still just because Hitler, even without his Final Solution, was a crazed despot that sought to subjugate all of Europe. For that reason, cries for peace at any price must be questioned as deeply as cries of havoc. After all, it was a fear of war as well as the honor of France that condemned Zola as much as Judaism condemned Dreyfus.
I’m a pragmatist and as self-righteous (or more) as (than) than the next individual (so long as the next individual isn’t Zola). It annoys then enrages me to see injustice or illogic. Zola called it out and he was successful at it. Perhaps he was a frog-eating, self-indulgent, pompous poseur, but dash it, the man got results and outed some pretty dreadful stuff. I’ll take results from a Frenchman over no results at all.