Summaries

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) Movie Summary

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Emile Zola (Paul Muni-Nominated for Best Actor) is a struggling writer sharing an apartment in Paris with his friend, Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sololoff). Zola is a social observer who surprisingly finds success as the author of novels about injustice. Cezanne eventually thrives as a renowned Post-Impressionist painter. Picasso and Matisse said of Cezanne, “he is the father of us all.”

When they are older and prosperous, Cezanne reminds his friend Emile to continue striving for truth and justice. Zola uses the power of his pen to help Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Academy Award Winner Joseph Schilkraut) who was wrongly convicted of treason. Dreyfus has been left to rot in the god-forsaken prison of Devil’s Island. Dreyfus’ wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) brings the case to Zola’s attention.

Even after irrefutable proof surfaces that Dreyfus is innocent and a Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat) was the culprit, the brass in the French Army refuse to rectify the injustice. The Army seems willing to do anything to avoid admitting their mistake. They even are willing to let the guilty Esterhazy get away with his crimes against the French Republic. The film neglects the issue of Anti-Semitism, which strongly influenced Dreyfus’ conviction.



Emile Zola prints a letter addressed to the French President in a prominent French newspaper titled, J’ Accuse. He clearly lays out his grievances with the Army and it’s treatment of Dreyfus. Zola experiences the wrath of the Army for himself and is accused of libel. He faces a trial in which his defense is severely limited and the army is allowed to bully the jury. Not surprisingly, the jury finds Zola guilty. He flees to London where he continues to publish articles demanding justice for Dreyfus.

The sins of Esterhazy eventually catch up to him and he flees. The Army has no choice but to reopen the Dreyfus Affair and exonerate him. He is cleared of all charges and receives a promotion within the army. The Officers involved in the cover-up resign or are let go. Some commit suicide out of shame.

Unfortunately, Emily Zola did not live to see Dreyfus’ vindication. He died writing at his home of carbon monoxide poisoning. The film ends with the funeral of Zola where he is lauded for his bravery and success in fighting for truth and justice.

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