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This Review Reveals Some Details About the Plot.

The Dreyfus Affair Revisited

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) on IMDb

Plot Overview

1862. Unknown author Émile Zola (Paul Muni) and unknown painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) inhabit a drafty Parisian apartment (“This place leaks like a sieve.”) They burn worth­less books to stay warm while avoiding their land­lord to stay situated. A surprise visit from Emile's lovely fiancée Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) gives him a potential break. “You have a job,” she tells him. He starts in the morning working as a clerk for La Rue Book Publisher.

On his own time he has written, The Confessions of Claude (“It is a bad book”), which lands his employer in trouble with French authorities on account of it's being “offensive”.  “Why write such muckraking stuff?” his boss asks and demands he stop. Instead, Émile leaves his job.

He meets a trollop Nana (Erin O'Brien Moore) at a street­side café who inspires his next literary work Nana. The public reacts strongly (“One doesn't read such books; it's not proper”) and it becomes a run­away success, the first in a series.

The scene shifts and we see French troops marching to Berlin (“War's been declared.”) It's the start of the Franco-Prussian War. Zola writes of them “marching into war like a flock of sheep being led to the shambles.”

According to historian J.M. Roberts, “France and Germany were psycho­logic­ally sundered by the German seizure of Alsace and Lorraine as spoils of victory in 1871 and many French­men could be easily agitated by bemoaning the lost provinces. French politicians whom it suited to do so were long able to cultivate and exploit the seductive theme of revanche. Nationalism in France, too, became entangled in more domestic issues” (398).

Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), of Hungarian descent, was feeding sensitive intelligence to the enemy. When one of his letters was inter­cepted, the French army general staff got wise to this treason in their midst and needed to find the culprit. They randomly selected one Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schild­kraut), a Jew from Alsace (“That's our man.”) They arrest him for treason (“Your hand­writing speaks against you”), put him in Cherche-Midi Prison, and convene a kangaroo court martial where he's “condemned to deportation for life.” He cries out, “I'm innocent. Long live France!” He's sent to languish in a stockade at Devil's Island off the coast of French Guyana in South America.

Eventually one of the army staff Colonel Georges Picquart (Henry O'Neill) discovers it was “Esterhazy's hand­writing,” not that of Dreyfus on the “ bordereau” letter. The Chief of Staff (Harry Daven­port) orders his silence. They can't go upsetting the apple cart now, can they? Dreyfus's persistent wife Lucie (Gale Sonder­gaard), how­ever, appeals to Zola to come out of retirement and take on this another worthy cause:

Émile Zola: “Why didn't Picquart say anything?”

Lucie Dreyfus: “Colonel Picquart is a good officer. He kept silent at the request of his superiors.”

Émile Zola: “You mean they KNEW and they ordered him to suppress the truth? Why, that's monstrous!”


Webster defines “misprision  1 b: concealment of treason or felony by one who is not a participant in the treason or felony.” The army general staff, while they did not them­selves commit treason, they never­the­less “suppress[ed] the truth” of Esterhazy's, because it would have made them look bad for having convicted Dreyfus for it. You might think that misprision of treason is an oddity, but it also showed up in the movies, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, “The Manhattan Project”, and “The Wild Bunch”, to name a few. This kind of crime also strikes closer to home for those who employ modern trans­lations of the Bible. Constantin Tischendorf whose long labor resulted in a borrowed prized Sinaitic Manu­script—now the second most important one in modern Bible translations—rather than return it to St. Catherine's Monastery where it belongs, he forged the Abbot's signature making it a gift to the Russian Czar. The translators who would know about this don't mention it in the prologues of their creations. That is (one of) the reason(s) why I'm quoting from the King James Version (KJV) here: its textus receptus (received text) is perfectly adequate Greek, and I don't want to be guilty of misprision of treason by blithely using any modern translation (after 1933) that incor­por­ates a stolen manuscript with a forged superior's signature on a contrived agreement about it.

That having been said, the King James Version is perfectly adequate here to develop the lessons of the Proverbs applicable to this story. (Prov. 14:1) “Every wise woman buildeth her house: but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands.” Both of the wives (and fiancée) in this story are shown to be actively supportive of their children and/or husbands in the domestic sphere, and of their husbands in the legal one, while the putain Nana can't even keep her own name unblemished; she kept changing it: aka Satin, aka Lucille, etc.

(Prov. 14:2) “He that walketh in his uprightness feareth the LORD: but he that is perverse in his ways despiseth him.” A portrait of a crucified Christ on a cross is remarked on as, “That too was a closed case.” The lines were drawn concerning a Jew, one of God's chosen ones.

(Prov. 14:3) “In the mouth of the foolish is a rod of pride: but the lips of the wise shall preserve them.” The book publisher had pride in his wares, the army staff had pride in their authority, and the French had pride in their army. Zola, how­ever, knew when to swallow his and get out of town: “There are times when the most courageous thing is to be cowardly,” he exclaimed.

(Prov. 14:4) “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.” The only way to have a barn floor free of manure is to not house any beasts in it, but one needs the oxen to plow the field. There will always be cause for muckraking so long as the government employs people, i.e. soldiers.

(Prov. 14:5) “A faithful witness will not lie: but a false witness will utter lies.” The Chief of Staff sure lied through his teeth, but Col. Picquart spoke the truth once he got up the nerve.

(Prov. 14:6) “A scorner seeketh wisdom, and findeth it not: but knowledge is easy unto him that understandeth.” The judge was scornful of any testimony from a “closed case” though he kept asking for witness testimony, but it was easy enough for Zola to figure out.

(Prov. 14:7) “Go from the presence of a foolish man, when thou perceivest not in him the lips of knowledge.” Zola and his poor roommate Cézanne burned the books that were full of drivel.

(Prov. 14:8) “The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way: but the folly of fools is deceit.” Cézanne later in life figured he needed to retire to the country for his health, sanity, and work. Zola foolishly felt his work was over and he could just lie back in contentment on his past successes.

(Prov. 14:9) “Fools make a mock at sin: but among the righteous there is favour.” The café owner and the flics gave the putain Nana a difficult time, but Zola and his table favored her with a seat, a drink, and an attentive ear.

(Prov. 14:10) “The heart knoweth his own bitterness; and a stranger doth not inter­meddle with his joy.” Dreyfus sure was bummed out in his prison disgrace, and his joy at vindication was unimaginable.

(Prov. 14:11) “The house of the wicked shall be overthrown: but the tabernacle of the upright shall flourish.” Every­body, the good and the bad, had families. It is best for their families if the men behave at their best.

(Prov. 14:12) “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” It seemed right to Zola to stay up past midnight working on his latest book, even after his wife admonished him to come to bed; he always needed fresh air, not that of the stuffy study.

(Prov. 14:13) “Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness.” Zola was happy when his fiancée found him a job, but not really.

(Prov. 14:14) “The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways: and a good man shall be satisfied from himself.” When Zola lost his zeal for muck­raking, his body grew soft and his belly bulky. Cézanne, how­ever, could sustain him­self on just his work (“An artist should remain poor.”)

(Prov. 14:15) “The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going.” The public was incensed at all they heard about Dreyfus, but Zola put two and two together.

(Prov. 14:16) “A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil: but the fool rageth, and is confident.” Col. Picquart made an about face in what he was involved in, but the Chief of Staff went on in a rage and supreme confidence.

(Prov. 14:17) “He that is soon angry dealeth foolishly: and a man of wicked devices is hated.” The Chief of Staff was quick to take umbrage at the putative Jewish, Alsatian traitor (“The army demands the punishment of this upstart!”) and his scenes eventually made him a hated figure.

(Prov. 14:18) “The simple inherit folly: but the prudent are crowned with knowledge.” The masses were just stupid coming out in droves to protest what they had no sure knowledge of. Zola who did his research figured out what it was all about.

(Prov. 14:19) “The evil bow before the good; and the wicked at the gates of the righteous.” The army ceremoniously honored the good and disparaged the evil, though it took them a couple tries to get it right.

(Prov. 14:20) “The poor is hated even of his own neighbour: but the rich hath many friends.” When the artists became wealthy, they had a lot more friends than when they were poor.

(Prov. 14:21) “He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.” Despising Nana was unnecessary, having mercy on her made her benefactors happy—especially after Zola published her story.

(Prov. 14:22) “Do they not err that devise evil? but mercy and truth shall be to them that devise good.” There's a big amen to that from the whole movie.

(Prov. 14:34) “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” To keep up the image of France and its army, “The Life of Emile Zola” was forbidden to be shown in France for fifteen years. It was also banned in Canada that held connections, I suppose, to the French army.

Production Values

Biographic “” (1937) was directed by William Dieterle. Its screen­play was written by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald & Geza Herczeg, using source material from Joseph­son: Zola and His Time. It deals largely with anti-semitism but the word Jew is never spoken; the studio didn't want to offend the German audiences it was soliciting. It stars Paul Muni, Gale Sonder­gaard, and Joseph Schild­kraut. We witness first-rate performances by Paul Muni and Joseph Schild­kraut. Paul Muni is also known for his excellent job in “Scarface.” Joseph Schild­kraut playing the condemned man Dreyfus won the best supporting actor award. The women playing the wives did well, too. All the acting was good.

The rather complex Dreyfus affair in real life was simplified for the sake of a movie presentation, so one mustn't get his knickers in a twist over historical omissions. The suggested MPAA rating would settle in at G for all ages admitted. The film is technically excellent, which includes editing, costuming, and lighting that is second to none. The music by Max Steiner is beautiful earning him a nomination for best music score Oscar. The audio level on the copy we had was variable, some­times a bit muddled but punctuated with loud noises at times.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

I liked this movie as I like all kinds of movies. If you enjoy dramatic biographies you will like it. It lacks a lot of the pizazz of other types.

Movie Ratings

Action Factor: Weak action scenes. Suitability for children: Suitable for all ages. Special effects: Average special effects. Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day. Suspense: Some suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Four stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture is taken from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Roberts, J.M. A History of Europe. New York: Penguin Press, 1997. Print.

Webster's Ninth New College Dictionary. Spring­field, Massa­chusetts, Merriam-Webster, 1983. Print.