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Film / The Life of Émile Zola

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This is where things start going downhill for Capt. Dreyfus.

The Life of Émile Zola is a 1937 film about the eponymous French novelist, concentrating on the last four years of his life and his involvement in the infamous "Dreyfus Affair". It was directed by William Dieterle and stars Paul Muni as Zola and Joseph Schildkraut as Alfred Dreyfus.

Émile Zola is a poor young writer in the Paris of Napoleon III, sharing a tiny attic garret with the painter, Paul Cezanne. He struggles in poverty until he gets a job with a publisher, which allows him to marry his wife, Alexandrine (Gloria Holden). Zola continues to write scathing, socially conscious novels, one of which gets him fired from his job with the publisher after the government of France takes offense. Finally he writes Nana, a novel inspired by a prostitute he meets in a Paris cafe. Nana is a huge hit and makes Zola a wealthy man. The years pass, and Zola continues to crusade for justice and progressive ideals, but eventually he grows fat and complacent as a respected man of letters—until the Dreyfus Affair. Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), an officer with the army General Staff, is accused of being a spy for the Germans based on little more than the fact that he is Jewish. Dreyfus is convicted of treason and imprisoned. After a plea from Dreyfus's wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) and the insistence of other writers, among them the great Anatole France (Morris Carnovsky), Zola intercedes on Dreyfus's behalf, writing the famous "J'accuse" open letter, and risking his own freedom and career in order to save Dreyfus from life imprisonment.

See also An Officer and a Spy, a Historical Fiction novel and film about the Dreyfus Affair told from the perspective of Col. Picquart.


  • The Alcatraz: Devil's Island, the French penal colony that was even worse than Alcatraz. Dreyfus is held there in solitary confinement for years.
  • Biopic: Sort of. Despite the title, the film is really about the Dreyfus Affair and Zola's involvement in it. His entire life and career before Dreyfus takes up only the first thirty minutes of a two-hour movie.
  • Book Burning: Zola's books are burned after he intercedes on behalf of Dreyfus.
  • Call-Forward: In Zola's last scene he talks about the thousands of children "doomed to die on the battlefield" if the forces of militarism and authoritarianism aren't exposed. World War I broke out twelve years later.
  • Censorship Bureau: The government does not like Zola's muckraking novels and tries but fails to suppress him.
  • Clear Their Name: Clear His Name, as Madame Dreyfus begs Émile Zola to take up her husband's cause.
  • The Determinator: Lucie Dreyfus, tirelessly collecting evidence and working to exonerate her husband.
  • Driven to Suicide: Colonel Henry kills himself in his prison cell after admitting to forging the documents used against Dreyfus.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Alfred Dreyfus is finally freed and rehabilitated, after years of suffering on Devil's Island. (The real Dreyfus fought in World War I and rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel.)
  • Foreshadowing: In the opening scene, Zola is trying to plug up the holes in the window of the crappy little room he shares with Cezanne. Later, when talking about the randomness of fate, he provides as an example how people can die from asphyxiation if a servant doesn't put out a fire. Zola is killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a plugged chimney.note 
  • Frame-Up: It turns out the General Staff forged documents in order to incriminate Dreyfus.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: : Someone who wasn't familiar with the Dreyfus Affair might wonder why Captain Dreyfus was selected to be the fall guy based on apparently zero evidence. The reason, of course, was that he was Jewish. Warner Brothers head Jack Warner, himself a Jew, insisted that Dreyfus's religion not be discussed in the film. However, when the General Staff is trying to figure out who the traitor is, Dreyfus's personnel file shows "Religion: Jew". The Minister of War's finger is pointing to that line as someone offscreen says snootily "I wonder how he ever became a member of the General Staff." The Minister of War then says "That's our man."
  • J'accuse!: The real Zola, of course, was the Trope Maker. In the movie Zola calls his open letter a "bomb", and it has that effect, turning the Dreyfus case into a major national scandal.
  • Kangaroo Court: Zola's libel trial, with a very prosecution-friendly judge that hinders Zola's defense every chance he gets. Also the courtmartial that convicts Dreyfus, although little of that is shown.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: The General Staff offers this to Dreyfus after he's arrested. Dreyfus angrily refuses and proclaims his innocence.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: The Dreyfus Affair is one of the most notorious Real Life instances of this trope.
  • The Mole: Major Esterhazy is a spy for the Germans, sending them sensitive info about French armament and military plans. Dreyfus is accused and convicted of the crime Esterhazy committed.
  • Nuclear Family: When we first see Dreyfus, he and his wife are playing with their kids. Definitely Too Happy to Live. A minute later Dreyfus is summoned to the office of the general staff and arrested.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Colonel Picquart realizes that Dreyfus is innocent and discovers that Major Esterhazy is the spy. For this he is sent off to a hardship post in Africa. When he comes back, he's imprisoned.
  • Starving Artist: At the beginning of the movie Zola and Cezanne are both this. Zola remains broke for a while but finally hits it big as an author. Cezanne remains poor, and tells Zola that a true artist should be poor.
  • Streetwalker: Nana, the whore that Zola and Cezanne save from a police raid. Her story inspires Zola to write Nana, the book that makes him a success.note 
  • Time-Passes Montage: A series of Émile Zola books pass by the camera, demonstrating Zola's long, prolific career as a novelist.
  • Trade Your Passion for Glory: Cezanne accuses Zola of this, saying that he's grown content with life as a rich and successful novelist, and that true artists should be poor. Zola basically admits this to his wife, saying "I fought my battles. Now I want calm, rest." Then he dives into the Dreyfus case and fights the biggest battle of his career.
  • True Art Is Angsty: In-universe. Zola insists on writing about all the injustices and social ills of French society. When the publisher that Zola works for suggests that Zola write about safer topics Zola reacts with contempt, and the publisher fires him.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film opens with a disclaimer basically admitting that most of the movie is fictional.
    • The real Alfred Dreyfus was freed in 1899, three years before Zola's death, and only after he agreed to accept a pardon that included admitting guilt. Dreyfus wasn't officially exonerated of the charges against him (which were definitely false) until 1906, four years after Zola died.
    • In Real Life, Cezanne broke off a friendship with Zola that dated back to their childhood after Zola used Cezanne as inspiration for a novel about an artist.
    • The film shows Zola getting the inspiration for his novel Nana after a chance encounter with a streetwalker. In fact Nana was the ninth volume in what turned out to be a 20-book Generational Saga, and the character of Nana had been introduced as a child in book #7 of the series, L'Assommoir.