The Life of Emile Zola episodically explores the career of the novelist who championed the cause of France's oppressed. Zola (Paul Muni) is a hugely successful French author who risks all his success and comfort to come to... more » the defense of the unjustly jailed Capt. Dreyfus (Oscar winner Joseph Schildkraut). Winner of three Oscars overall - and of immense critical and popular success - his distinguished film is a must-see portrait of a life that's a moment of the conscience of man. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture! Year: 1937« less
"Freedom is often taken for granted in our technologically advancing society, as a political and social complacency seems to have been generated through an overwhelming level of obligation to professional careers and other domestic responsibilities. People are also literally crushed by an ever-growing media tsunami through cable TV, abundance of Internet news sites, and newspapers. In this depth of information the individual simply drowns, as vital information is often smudged with star-studded gossip in the non-stop news tickers. Mass information could therefore function as a form of misinformation when essential information tries to reach the light of public attention. Some of this information could be in regards to decisions politicians and other authority figures make, which could affect the rights of the people. Thus, it has become essential for people to learn how to filter information. However, in the days of Emile Zola information was usually from one, or a few sources, which often proclaimed that the information was the "truth", as it was seldom challenged, until Zola.
In the Life of Emile Zola the audience gets to experience a somewhat fictionalized story of Zola (Paul Muni). Emile Zola, a novelist and critic, frequently struggled to make a living before he wrote the successful novel Nana, which dealt with prostitution. Throughout his career he wrote several masterpieces such as Germinal and the Downfall. Each of Zola's literary contributions was heavily influenced by the social struggle of the French people, which was highly criticized by authorities. Some of his novels where even banned due to their controversial issues as they were released at the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless, Zola persevered and continued to write novels depicting the social and political truth of French society, which he loved and adored.
Throughout the years Zola gained weight and wealth, as he ironically became one of the people who he frequently described with contempt in his novels. This was the result of the acquired wealth, which gave Zola an opportunity to live a life of leisure and delight. In his blissfulness he forgot the world around him, as he drifted into a complacent mind frame. His old friend the painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) criticized his neglectful attitude towards the French society, as he promised not to write when has moved south. During this period when Zola was more occupied with finding a fresh lobster at the local market there was a legendary military trial in regards to an officer named Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) who appeared to the society to have committed the shameful act of treason.
The truth was unknown to the world, as generals and other high-ranking officers had decided that Dreyfus was guilty due to his ethnicity. It was an anti-Semitic approach that led this innocent man into suffering years of imprisonment on the Devil's Island of the South American coast. Dreyfus' wife insisted on her husband's innocence, as she finally approached Zola for his help when she had documents proving Dreyfus' innocence. Initially Zola leaned on his complacency, but a quick reminder from a glimpse of his friend Cezanne led him to take on the French Army and the biased court system of France. Unfortunately, it lead Zola to escape imprisonment by traveling across the English Channel and make London his temporary home while continuing to write about the unjust French legal system and the French military's error.
William Dieterle directs a masterful story in Life of Emile Zola, which grabs the audience with an inspiring affect that stirs an internal motivation to help the fight against injustice in a cerebral and peaceful manner. In addition, the film has a strong historical perspective as the film was released a couple of years before World War II and during a period when several million Jews were persecuted in Nazi-Germany. Ultimately, Life of Emile Zola ended up winning three Oscars of its 10 nominations. Yet, the Oscars do not disclose the monumental value of the film, which offers a truly unique cinematic experience that the studio company Warner Brother's will have a hard time to match."
The Life of Emile Zola: Stuffy but Stately
Martin Asiner | jersey city, nj United States | 08/30/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In 1936, Paul Muni was on a roll. He had just won an Oscar for best actor in THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR, so it was no surprise that a year later, director William Dieterle chose him for the lead in THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA. Zola, as Muni plays him, is a man who brings to mind a stuffy but morally centered grandfather type who sees his mission in life as the only man who is willing to stand up for what is right and root out corruption and evil when all others turn away claiming one valid excuse after another.
TLEZ is your standard but exceptional Hollywood bio-movie then so popular. Typically, such films begin 'en medias res', thrusting the hero into a series of lesser adventures that prefigure his later, more heroic ones. Zola and Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) are two poverty-stricken friends sharing a dumpy apartment in Paris. Each dreams of using his talent, Cezanne with art, Zola with words, to shake a complacent world with the immediacy of their need to force others to re-evaluate some given bedrock assumptions. Zola is a mudracker, but he cannot find it in himself to lead the fight alone. At critical points in the movie, others step in and out of his life to fire his conscience. Zola and Cezanne meet a streetwalker, Nana, who pours out a tale of economically blighted woe, the result of which is to fire Zola's imagination to write a novel exposing the corruption of a society that allowed such otherwise decent women to go astray. The first half of the movie sets up the character of Zola as one who, when convinced of the rightness of his cause, would boldly put in print inflammatory words that more than once would place him in peril. The second half focuses on the relation that Zola had with Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew who was a captain in the French army. Zola and Dreyfus never met, but their interaction set the stage for some political fireworks that rocked the very core of the French government. Dreyfus was wrongfully accused of spying for the Germans, and a kangaroo court-martial found him guilty of treason and sent him to Devil's Island as punishment. In historical truth, Dreyfus's Jewishness was a significant factor in arousing France's widespread anti-Semitism against him. Director Dieterle sidesteps this controversy by using the word 'Jew' only once, and then briefly in a personal file on Dreyfus. At first, Zola does not care very much for Dreyfus' protestations of innocence. However, when the wife of Dreyfus makes a personal appeal to him for help, he agrees and the movie then turns into a battle between Zola and a corrupt, entrenched French High Command who are collectively willing to see Dreyfus rot on Devil's Island to save their own skins. Zola's 'I Accuse' harangue rings with the sincerity of a man who is willing to take on the Powers That Be to save a country's honor when those very corrupt Powers argue that their own sense of honor requires the opposite. Louis Calhern leads a fine supporting cast as one of the lying officers who see honor only in lying to the French public about their own shortcomings. Joseph Schildkraut as the accused Dreyfus brings considerable dignity to the role of a man who is forced to endure a public and humiliating ritual of dishonoring. By the film's end, the audience can see that virtue and honesty are not enough to ensure the ongoing vitality of a country's nobility. For that, the occasional pecking gadfly is needed. Zola was such a gadfly. THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA serves to remind us that such gadflies are often in short supply, especially when they are most needed."
POIGNANT, POWERFUL AND EXTREMELY ENRICHING!
Nix Pix | Windsor, Ontario, Canada | 02/01/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"In a lucrative and highly successful career that saw him play everyone from Spanish savior, Juarez to a cutthroat gangster in Scarface, character chamelion Paul Muni became French novelist Emile Zola in "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937). This is perhaps the most legitimate and faithful - certainly, the most serious and stirring - biographical film to emerge from a major Hollywood studio, and so quite unlike anything that had ever been seen on the screen until that time. Warner spared no expense in retelling Zola's early and lingering success as an author and tragic death in a house fire. Embarking in idyllic 1862's Paris with Zola's initial fame, the film delves compassionately into the morbid curiosity and imfamous trial known as the Dreyfus Affair. Encouraged by confidant and contemporary, painter Paul Cezanne (Vladamir Sokoloff) to dispell his own comfortable success and, to stand up for truth and justice, Zola decides to take on the case of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), a war hero unjustly accused of disclosing military secrets and imprisoned on Devil's Island.
There are so many powerful and haunting moments in this bio that it's hard to pinpoint exactly where its greatness derives. But it is perhaps best exemplified by the dynamic interactions between Zola and Cezanne. These lead into the beautfully realized and justly celebrated court room summation that, once seen, is not to be forgotten.
"There are times when the most courageous thing is to be cowardly" exclaims Zola...indeed. The quiet rectitude of "The Life of Emile Zola" is a distinct pleasure for classic cinema fans - neither embellished or flag waving, but just as emotionally satisfying and twice as likely to be championed well into the next century. The film's definite slant toward critiquing anti-Semitism is now a time capsule; forshadowing the growing angst of nations and Nazi terror that was to engulf Europe and cast the world into its second great war. However, William Dieterle's direction is timeless, with slick panache that makes all his points but never heavy-handed or without style befitting a classic biography. The score, by luminary composer Max Steiner, is striking and poignant. In short, "The Life of Emile Zola" is befitting of the Oscar for Best Picture and very much a relic from Hollywood's golden age worthy of considerable and repeated re-examination.
Warner Home Video's DVD is a reason to stand up and cheer. While there are age related artifacts present throughout, and some scenes suffer from considerable grain, the overall image quality is solid, sharp and beautifully contrasted. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered with deep, rich blacks and, for the most part, solid clean whites. Certain brief sections appear to have been duped in from second or third generation elements, but, keeping in mind that the film is 70 plus year old, such lapses should easily be forgiven. The audio is mono but has been presented at an adequate listening level. A slight hiss is detected occasionally. Save a complete and costly digital restoration, no more could have been expected by the good people at Warners on this transfer. It is head and shoulders above anything the film has looked like in years. Extras include a rare audio only recording of Muni doing Zola on radio, a dramatic, and, a cartoon short subject. The one disappointment here is that no time was taken to do a featurette on the making of this classic film. Regardless, it comes highly recommended by this reviewer.
A brilliant story as relevant today as ever
takintime | Raleigh, NC USA | 03/07/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"To be honest, I rented this video to do some period costume research, but forgot all about that after getting involved in the story. Paul Muni portrays Zola most realistically, from his rise from the cramped, cold apartment of his early career to becoming the literary toast of France. And just when it seems that life is as good as it can be, along comes the "Dreyfus Affair" to challenge his conscience. All he has to do is keep quiet, and he can live a life of luxury right to the end. However, "all" becomes too much for the man who has spent his life developing the social conscience of his country through literature. Muni is brilliant in the role of Zola, and all the supporting cast give believable and stirring performances. This film holds you in its grip from start to finish, as it examines the worth of social institutions versus the lives of the people who uphold and venerate them, and sometimes become their victims. A definitely timeless piece of art."
Muni at his best in classic barnstorming period biopic
Trevor Willsmer | London, England | 04/05/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"'The Life of Emile Zola' is more about the Dreyfuss affair than the author's life - only 'Nana' is given more than a passing nod ('Germinal' gets 30 seconds of screentime while the rest of his novels are dismissed in a montage of covers) while his demise is signposted from the very first scene - and it does fall prey to the usual biopic problems ("Nana, pull up a chair next to Cezanne"), but it's such terrific entertainment, who cares? Muni is great value as Zola, much like the offscreen young Chaplin in the early scenes before becoming the great man of letters, where he walks the tightrope between over and underplaying, and he's given two great setpiece speeches - J'accuse and his address to the court - that are foolproof crowdpleasers that he handles with relish and aplomb. It's like one of Warners' crusading social issue pictures that just happens to have been set in the late 19th century and shot on an epic scale, and it has an immediacy and sense of moral outrage that is surprisingly powerful and deeply felt and even, ultimately, quite moving. Dated, yes, but undeniably impressive stuff despite Donald Crisp's very unfortunate haircut.
The DVD is a great package - a good transfer plus traler and radio adaptation and a couple of incongrous short films - that is well worth adding to any classic collection."