Starring the great Paul Muni as Emile Zola, directed by William Dieterle, based on the book by Matthew Josephson, this biographical film of the life of the French writer and journalist was recently released on DVD, in early 2005, and is well worth seeing. (But do turn the subtitles on, since the dialogue is scratchy and some of the fake French accents are hard to understand).
The film traces the life of Zola from his days in the 1860s as a starving writer, sharing an attic room with his childhood friend Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), through his financial success as a chronicler of the life of the poor and crusader for accountability of French institutions, particularly the military, and finally his decision to take up the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (played by Joseph Schildkraut). Dreyfus, a Jew falsely accused of treason by anti-Semitic officers in the French army, was sentenced on forged evidence to torture and isolation on Devil's Island.
The social sweep of Zola's work is well-presented. His success was based on a book, Nana, about a prostitute, and his attacks on the army and other powerful established political and social interests got him in trouble with the official censors long before the Dreyfus Affair. Still, Zola fulfilled the dreams he had in that attic room he shared with Cezanne, becoming a successful and wealthy writer -- his works were well-researched and widely read, and dealt with subjects that the French public, if not the French establishment, wanted their writers to confront.
But Zola risked everything to defend Dreyfus at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in France. While the film shows crowds throwing things at him as he ducks into his carriage, sadly, the film does not show his break with his old friend Cezanne, an anti-Semite himself who felt betrayed by Zola. The movie shows Cezanne leaving because Zola has become successful and complacent. But the real break, which the film does not dare show because Cezanne was such a magnificent artist, was that anti-Semitism was not confined to the mobs chasing Zola's carriage through the streets of Paris and burning his books.
The movie, released in 1937 when anti-Semitism was again sweeping the continent of Europe, soft-pedals anti-Semitism (the word "Jew" is never mentioned), but in one scene that works well. When the French officers are trying to figure out who is leaking their secrets to the Germans, they run down a list of names and come to the name Dreyfus. The word "Jew" need not be spoken. It is understood.
The movie shows more of the legal proceedings than I expected, even though of course great liberties are taken with the lengthy, tortuous procedures. Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced, but then thanks to the protestations of some within the military, evidence emerged casting doubt on his conviction, leading to the court martial of Major Walsin Esterhazy, who, the film makes clear, was the actual guilty party. But Esterhazy was acquitted -- the general command could not bring themselves to admit their initial error in prosecuting Dreyfus, especially since they knew of evidence that would have implicated Esterhazy before Dreyfus was ever tried.
In 1898, Zola writes an open letter to the president of France, entitled J'Accuse. ("With that word, if slightly ahead of schedule, the twentieth century came into being.") Zola accused the army general staff of knowing that Dreyfus was innocent. (The letter was published in the newspaper owned by Georges Clemenceau, who later became the president of France.) Zola expects to be sued for libel, and he is. But at the libel trial, the film accurately showed the judge refusing to admit evidence of Dreyfus's innocence. Zola is convicted, but flees to England, where he continues to advocate for Dreyfus. Zola loses all but a few friends, but what friends they are: Anatole France (played by Morris Carnovsky) and Georges Clemenceau (Grant Mitchell).
The legal exposition can be a bit murky if you don't know the facts, and Hal Erickson, in the All Movie Guide (www.allmovie.com) explains why this film, released in 1937, could not name names:
Only those villains whose names were a matter of public record (Major Dort, Major Esterhazy) are specifically identified. Others are referred to as the Chief of Staff, the Minister of War, etc. to avoid lawsuits from their descendants (remember that the events depicted in the film, most of which take place between 1894 and 1902, were still within living memory in 1937). As for Dreyfus himself, he was not freed and restored to rank in 1902, the year of Zola's death [as portrayed in the film], but in 1906 -- after being found guilty again in an 1899 retrial. Dreyfus died in 1935, outliving everyone else involved in the case.
Erickson wrote that the message of this film, and by implication of Zola's life, is that a single small, clear voice can fight City Hall. But I was stunned at how many people it took, over many years, to right this injustice. Little happens in the case until a new war minister came to power. (So much in life depends on an honest person at the top). Even then, it still took five years for the suppressed information to emerge, and for the officers in question to resign. The film focuses on a Colonel Picquart (powerfully played by Henry O'Neill) who ruined his military career by stating again and again, including in court, that Dreyfus was convicted on false evidence. And of course Georges Clemenceau, a military man who distinguished himself in World War I, fought for six years to clear Dreyfus, alongside Zola. This film pays ample tribute to all these people, as well as to Dreyfus's wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard), another tireless advocate for justice.
Nominated for ten Oscars, the movie won three, including best picture.