Monday, March 22, 2010
The Life of Emile Zola (1937): A Case for Life
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Director: William Dieterle
Starring: Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, Gale Sondergaard, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp, Vladimir Sokoloff
Studio: Warner Brothers
Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor—Schildkraut, Best Screenplay) from 10 total nominations (Best Director—Dieterle, Best Actor—Muni, Art Direction, Assistant Director, Score, Sound, Writing—Original Story)
I think that biopics—like romantic comedies—are difficult films to do really successfully. Many factors go into the creation of a successful biopic. For example, the more famous the subject, the trickier it is to condense a film from their life story. Jesus or Queen Elizabeth may prove too much subject for a feature film than say a relatively obscure French writer/activist. With that in mind though, a subject needs to have a life, or part of a life, that is worthy of being filmed. It may be hard to condense the achievements of a truly famous person into a film but if the subject is too obscure then will the film have an audience? The case for a filmic life needs to be made.
Biopics also need to be selective. I love a good, long and enveloping biography, but what works well for 1,000 pages can be agony on screen. Also, the film needs to adhere to some sort of structure that works for a feature film. Simply reporting the events of someone’s life may as well be a documentary.
Finally, a biopic needs to be an adaptation. By this I mean that the filmmakers need to know when it is necessary to create composite characters, condense events, or simply leave out details of a life that aren’t crucial to the story the film is telling. A chronological checklist of the events of a life rarely ever makes an interesting film. It may sound like blasphemy, but a good biopic has got to know how to rewrite history into a screenplay. Of course, the filmmakers can’t veer so far as to make up complete and outright lies (which I’ll examine much later when discussing A Beautiful Mind).
Oh, a damn good actor—and not just great but wisely cast—needs to occupy the lead role.
A good biopic is a balancing act, a tightrope walker performing without a net. Not everyone is as gifted, skilled or ballsy to walk on a high wire, and not every biopic can gracefully balance so many divergent elements. Both are rare acts indeed. Thankfully, The Life of Emile Zola hits all of its marks. The film presents the story of a relatively unknown subject—in this case Zola himself, given a searing portrayal by the brilliant Paul Muni—and makes the case for his story to be told by focusing on specific events in Zola’s life connected by a universal theme.
The Life of Emile Zola opens in Paris in 1862. Zola and impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) share a drafty flat, and live the lifestyle of struggling and starving artists. For those familiar with Jonathan Larson’s musical RENT, imagine Zola and Cézanne as a nineteenth century Mark and Roger. Zola needs to get a job to marry his fiancée, Alexandrine (Gloria Holden), so he takes work at a small publishing company. Zola comes into several conflicts at his job—he’s definitely a bit of an anti-authoritarian—and when his indictment of Parisian officials, The Confessions of Claude, is published, the author is fired from his job.
Zola continues to struggle until he strikes up a (non-sexual) relationship with a prostitute. The novel he writes based on her memoirs, Nana, becomes a runaway success. Nana, which is sympathetic and honest in its portrayal of the prostitute, captures the imagination of France and catapults Zola into riches (though the frank depictions of sexual acts such as ménage a trios contained within the text certainly helped to boost sales through both titillation and controversy). Zola continues to write about the hard lives of ordinary French citizens and the corruption present in their government. In a nicely constructed montage by director William Dieterle, the covers of Zola’s books pass by, and both Zola’s sense of activism and burgeoning celebrity are conveyed.
The Zola/Cézanne relationship isn’t the huge driving force of the film, save for one crucial scene. Zola is being awarded the Legion of Honor. He has many guests at his now vast home—in stark contrast to his meager dwellings shared with the painter—though Cézanne is the only guest who seems unhappy. He warns Zola that he is getting “too fat”—in appearance for sure (Muni puts his body through a fantastic transformation, and the makeup in the film convincingly ages him)—but also a gluttony that has shoved Zola’s idealism aside for wealth. Cézanne and Zola never meet again (this is historically accurate), and while never explicitly alluded to, Cézanne’s words haunt and guide Zola’s actions throughout the remainder of the film. The crucial theme of The Life of Emile Zola is expressed thusly: What makes an artist more successful—the amassing of popularity and riches (surely, no artist wants to be starving) or the ability of one’s work to truly make a difference in the world?
Concurrently, a subplot involving Alfred Dreyfus is introduced. Dreyfus was a Captain in the French army of Jewish heritage (note that aside from a very short, brief visual reference, any mention of Dreyfus being a Jew is omitted from the film, though ultimately Dreyfus’ innocence trumps the issue of anti-Semitism in the film). He was wrongfully accused of spilling French army secrets to the Germans, and though there is clear evidence that Dreyfus is completely innocent of any wrongdoings—the film even establishes the true guilty party—Dreyfus is sentenced to a brutal imprisonment on Devil’s Island in what is now Suriname. Joseph Schildkraut won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal, which memorably depicts Dreyfus’ suffering and dignity.
Dreyfus’ wife (Gale Sondergaard) vows to clear her husband’s name. After most of the traditional avenues become closed off to her, she turns to support from the intellectual community in Paris and eventually to Zola himself. Zola is initially reluctant to help, and his true motivations are left up to the viewers to decide, but eventually, Zola becomes Dreyfus’ champion. The rich writer is reminded of his days as an upstart, and this time, he has true authority in which to rebel against in the French army. The military officials in the film are portrayed as uniformly clueless—the Minister of War in the film is quoted as saying, “Books? Books? I don’t read books!”—and they adhere to a strict good-ol’-boy network where the fear of losing face is far more important than exposure of the truth. Zola then publishes his most famous piece of writing, his “J’Accuse” (“I Accuse”) letter, published in newspapers across France which declares Dreyfus innocent and accuses the French army of a conspiracy to cover up the truth. The letter is the impetus for Dreyfus’ case to be re-tried, and the climax of the film comes when Zola himself is put on the stand, where he gives an impassioned summation saying:
At this solemn moment, in the presence of this tribunal, which is the representative of human justice, before France, before the whole world, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent! By all that I have won, by all that I have written to spread the spirit of France, I swear that he is innocent. May all that melt away; may my name perish if Dreyfus be not innocent. He is innocent.
Zola’s efforts though are for naught, and Dreyfus is not set free. However, it is Zola who rekindles the fire in his belly for justice. In his defense of Dreyfus, Zola is lured out of complacency. Though Zola’s words of “may my name perish” prove prophetic—he becomes exiled from France—ultimately, his passion and quest for the truth win out and Dreyfus is released from prison and his full rank is reinstated. Tragically, Zola dies in an accident involving carbon monoxide poisoning, and he never get to see the man he fought so valiantly for set free.
I didn’t come away from the film thinking it was at all a tragedy. Instead, The Life of Emile Zola becomes a triumph of art used for activism—this is a film that celebrates the power of writing over injustice. It powerfully told me that while a writer may become rich and celebrated, that wealth is hollow unless the art behind it is used to effect positive change—often in the face of what would be easy, what is popular, and what seems impossible.
As a biopic, it met my criteria and then some. I knew nothing of Zola or the Dreyfus Affair before watching the film, and it made the case that this story was absolutely necessary. Muni is almost chiefly responsible for creating a character on film that makes believable changes and grows as a human being, and the script is wisely focused on how Zola’s career unfolds because of the choices he makes. Though the film includes details about his personal relationships and also shows a window into the inner workings of the French government—Zola remains the primary focus of the film. Not once did The Life of Emile Zola feel outdated to me, and while Muni, Dreyfus, and Emile Zola himself have each passed on decades ago, the film makes a case for their story—their lives—to be immortal.