The Life of Emile Zola doesn’t enjoy a very high reputation among Oscar followers so I was prepared for the worst when I gave it a first try and was surprised how great I actually considered it – an opinion strengthened by a second viewing.
The movie tells about the life of French author Emile Zola and particular his involvement in the Dreyfus affair. The Life of Emile Zola is obviously not a high-budget production – the sets often don’t look fully convincing and a lot of shots seem to come from a B-movie but the story and particularly the actors raise the whole concept and turn The Life of Emile Zola into a very interesting and surprisingly effective motion picture. In the middle is Paul Muni, again playing a real-life person, who wonderfully catches all the aspects of the young and the old Emile – especially his big speech in court is an unforgettable moment in which the importance of the words and the performance of the actor work in perfect harmony. Joseph Schildkraut won himself a well-deserved Oscar for playing the ill-fated Alfred Dreyfus – his performance is both haunting and moving and he makes the most of his little screen time. It’s surprising to see the usual scheming and evil Gale Sondergaard in the standard part of the loyal and suffering wife but she, too, got the most out of her material and perfectly hid her usual manipulative screen presence behind the face of a worried woman.
What works also very well is that The Life of Emile Zola does not only focus on the Dreyfus affair but is more interested in the youth and early work of Zola, too. The scenes with a young prostitute whose story inspires him to write his first book create a fitting entrance to the story of Zola’s life. Later, he is also thankfully never turned into a saint and he only reluctantly begins to involve himself in the case of Alfred Dreyfus – but once he is convinced of his innocent, he fights as hard as he can. The scenes in the courtroom may be too simple in some ways – it is always clear who are the good and who are the bad guys, there is nothing in between but again, the movie somehow makes it work and it’s both gripping and devastating to watch Zola fight for justice.
Most of all, The Life of Emile Zola shows how a few people can use their power and influence over the people and the press and turn them into almost mindless marionettes who are wiling to believe everything they are told. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, The Life of Emile Zola may be more admirable for its ideas and ambitions rather than its actual execution but The Life of Emile Zola benefits from a stronger story and a tighter presentation. And the final scenes of Joseph Schildkraut, his reaction to his freedom and his appearance before the army are extremely moving.
The Life of Emile Zola is not among the most celebrated winners in this category and it’s easy to see that one can find it dull and lifeless but, for me, it’s a strong and well-made drama.