in about 100 words or less
US 116m, B&W
Director: William Dieterle; Cast: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut
The Life of Émile Zola is a biographical film that is based on the life and writing of the popular 19th century French author. As Zola, Paul Muni gives an impressive performance as the always optimistic and eccentric author who is eager to take up political causes in his work. The film portrays Zola’s early years as a struggling artist whose initial success came with the publication of “Nana” – a bawdy book about a prostitute who suggested that she was still good-looking if you took a quick look and the light was low. In his later years, a period on which most of the film is based, Zola is initially portrayed as content to savor his life’s accomplishments until taking up the cause of Army captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely accused of treason and condemned to Devil’s Island. Although many of the details of the actual case were altered, including the role which anti-Semitism played a part in the framing of Dreyfus, the film’s message of the importance of justice and self-sacrifice for that end is overwhelmingly positive (Klaus Ming February 2011).