Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

By Eric Jessen June 27, 2010

When Paul Muni in full Emile Zola beard screams about truth in William Dieterle's The Life of Emile Zola I couldn't help but chuckle. Or was it that I gagged but the sewage that spewed from my mouth was thought too lurid to survive any retelling?
Hollywood has always told its own version of history, but why does it always have to be at the expense of facts? In the case of The Life of Emile Zola the lack of truth is not particularly egregious but it is particularly ironic – and perhaps an opportunity for a teaching moment.
Emile Zola was a man about truth. The Life of Emile Zola agrees. He was tried and found guilty of defamation for accusing in a newspaper article members of the French army of convicting Alfred Dreyfus of treason knowing he was innocent, and trying to cover up their mistake by acquitting Major Esterhazy of treason knowing he was guilty. Zola fled to England. Dreyfus was let out of prison after the French government collapsed. And Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning soon after. Thankfully fact and the film are still on the same page.
Here's where fact meets Hollywood. Emile Zola was famous in France long before writing Nana as the film portrays. (Although a small foot note, every detail counts where fact is concerned.) Alfred Dreyfus' wife never met with Emile Zola and begged him to help her husband, showing him evidence her husband was innocent. And in the category of Hollywood by omission, there was no mention whatsoever in the film of Emile Zola accusing in his article members of the military of antisemitism against Dreyfus.
I say, Why? Do these fabrications not make the movie less substantive? Do they not make the story more dull? Why must Hollywood always take liberties with the truth? Why must it mold history to fit its cliches? I say, stop the over-fictionalizing and fantasizing! I say, stop making every trip to the movies an unlearning of history! J'Accuse! J'Accuse!

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