The Life of Emile Zola is the second biopic to win Best Picture after The Great Ziegfeld won the year before. Its impact led many to believe it was the greatest biographical film made up to that point. Only through the movie did I learn Émile Zola was a famous French author known for his naturalist writing and muckraking scandals. Zola exposed the truth in France and the film mostly explores his rags to riches story. The Life of Emile Zola is very deserving of all its admiration and double digit Oscar nominations at the 10th Academy Awards.
Though there is a shadow of controversy that hangs over it. The other half of the story focuses on the Dreyfus affair of 1894. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish Army officer accused of treason. Although the reason was strongly anti-semitic, the movie barely acknowledges it. Since the Nazis rose to power around the time, many believe Hollywood was afraid to speak against their actions. The only reference to Dreyfus as a Jew is a piece of paper showing his religion and parallels to Jesus.
Despite the omission, The Life of Emile Zola is well written enough to have won Best Screenplay. Performances are also stellar with a transformative portrayal of Paul Muni as Zola. Muni captures Zola’s enthusiasm for writing and bravery when faced with the dangerous task of exposing Dreyfus’ false arrest. Joseph Schildkraut won Best Supporting Actor since Dreyfus goes through the most turmoil. Zola’s open letter “J’accuse…!” leads to a powerful court case that left me hanging on every word. The Life of Emile Zola proves the pen is mightier than the sword.