The Life of Émile Zola


The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.


The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

2 thoughts on “The Life of Émile Zola

  1. I was checking out Sepia Saturday and spotted your post on the sidebar. I will have to look for this film, as I just finished a superb book on French art in which Emil Zola is a significant character. I knew of him in historic context but don’t think I’ve ever read any of his writing. Zola’s first work as an art critic evidently inspired his passionate style when he covered the intense competition of the 1860s Paris art scene.

    The book title is “The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism” by Ross King. It is a fascinating history of how the Impressionist artists, notably Manet, introduced a new perspective to an art world dominated by conservative academy artists who painted realistic moral, mythical, or biblical stories. The author puts this volatile art world into the larger French political context of Emperor Louis Napoleon’s rule which ends with the Franco-Prussian War.

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  2. I’ll look out for King’s book. I’m currently reading my way through Zola’s 20 novel series about the Rougon-Marquardt family, an interesting look at 19th century France.


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