Here’s a quick tip: To get the most out of this film, do not read any sort of quick biography on Emile Zola. All you need to know for backup is that he was a writer in France speaking out against oppression in government and society. The film should do the rest.
We first meet Zola (Paul Muni) as a poor aspiring writer sharing a room with the painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). He begins working for a print company, who begins printing his work, but money is still tight. When his work gets too contravercial, they fire him. Thankfully, that just gives him more time to write and soon he’s famous for his newest book about the life of a protitute entitled, Nana. After all this success comes many more and it seems that Emile can sit back and take it easy in his nice house now.
Meanwhile, French Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is wrongfully accused of treason against France and sent to Devil’s Island. It’s horrible to think that all he can do there is stand at the window in a tiny jail cell of a shack surrounded by a sharp pointy fence and armed gards and yell, “I’m innocent!” at the ocean. Evidence comes to the French governments attention that Dreyfus is innocent, but rather than fix the situation and pull a nineteenth century “My Bad,” they choose to ignore it.
In desperation, Dryfus’s wife comes to Zola asking him to help her expose this terrible injustice. But Zola’s old and retired, should he get back into the old crusade?
Paul Muni stars as Zola, dawning the classic tiny glasses and gray beard. He brings out the passion, intelligence and has a look in his eye that always seeks truth. He’s very bold and has a way of sticking his chin out when openly challenges all of France. But in the end, I felt the whole thing was like his speeches: long winded and dull. But hey, it’s always good to have a lot of variety in characters, playing poor Chinese and rebelous French all in one year.
It is Joseph Schildkraut who brought home an acting award. He won best supporting actor for portraying the wronged man Alfred Dreyfus. Though he mostly yells, “I’m innocent,” he never lets it get old. We can’t help but believe him and that can weigh on your heart for a while. It’s no wonder Schildkraut went on to play Otto in The Diary of Anne Frank.
For me, the film wasn’t anything special. If you’re into French history, the Dreyfus Affair, writers exposing hypocracy, Zola or Muni you may enjoy this. I’m sure this was amazing back in the day, but today I have a different pick for best picture.
“What does it matter if an individual is shattered – if only justice is resurrected?”