The Life of Emile Zola (1937) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • The biopic of the famous French muckraking writer and his involvement in fighting the injustice of the Dreyfuss Affair.

  • Fictionalized account of the life of famed French author Emile Zola. As portrayed in the film, he was a penniless writer sharing an apartment in Paris with painter Paul Cezanne when he finally wrote a best-seller, Nana. He has always had difficulty holding onto a job as he is quite outspoken, being warned on several occasions by the public prosecutor that he risks charges if he does not temper his writings. The bulk of the film deals with his involvement in the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely convicted of giving secret military information to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devils Island. Antisemitism played an important role in the real-life case but is hardly mentioned in the film. Even after the military found definitive evidence that Dreyfus was innocent, the army decided to cover it up rather than face the scandal of having arbitrarily convicted the wrong man. Zola's famous letter, J'Accuse (I Accuse), led to his own trial for libel where he was found guilty and forced to flee to England. Dreyfus was eventually exonerated and restored to his military rank.

  • The story of Emile Zola, French writer and social commentator. We track his life from his days as a struggling artist, sharing an apartment with Paul Cezanne, to his first bestselling book, and resulting elevation from poverty, to his forays into social and political commentary through his books, to his involvement in the Dreyfuss Affair.

  • After struggling to establish himself, author Émile Zola wins success writing about the unsavory side of Paris and settles into a comfortable upper-class life. However, Zola's complacency is shaken when Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus is imprisoned for being a spy. Realizing that Dreyfus is an innocent victim of anti-Semitism, Zola boldly pens a newspaper article exposing the truth, is charged with libel and must defend himself in a dramatic courtroom testimony.

  • Paul Cezanne and Émile Zola were friends when both were starting their careers. Through ups and downs Zola became financially successful long before Cezanne. He was married and had a successful career as an author. Paul Cezanne then decided to live in the country far away from the city, and told Zola not to be part of the establishment but to fight for truth and justice again. He is approached by Lucie Dreyfus, who's husband was unjustly court martialed and sent to Devil's Island because he was accused of betraying his country by disclosing military secrets.

  • Struggling French writer Émile Zola is more concerned about exposing social and public injustices through his writing than he is about earning a living. However, he does ultimately become a success as a writer, and as a result lives a life of comfort and class. Late in his life, he, on the most part, places his life as a social crusader behind him. Late in the nineteenth century, French Captain Alfred Dreyfus, adamantly professing his innocence, is accused, tried and convicted of treason against the French republic and banished to Devil's Island. New information comes to light of Dreyfus' innocence, information suppressed by the French military in the name of protecting public morale and information which is brought to Zola's attention by Mme. Dreyfus. Initially not wanting to get involved, Zola decides to reignite his social consciousness by defending Dreyfus in the court of public opinion, at the risk of his own personal standing and safety.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • As a writer who, like Charles Dickens, saw no part of society unworthy of his attention and scrutiny, Emile Zola (Paul Muni) gradually rises, through his novels, as a moralist who semes to understand, empathize with, and appreciate people in all stations in life. His fame and credibility as a champion of the people give him the courage to intervene in the notorious Dreyfus affair, in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, is, despite the lack of evidence against him, found guilty of the treasonous acts of another Army officer and exiled to Devil's Island. Within a year of Dreyfus' arrest, it becomes clear to several in the French army that Dreyfus was innocent, but they resolve to sweep the mistake under the rug rather than rectify it.

    When it later becomes evident to Zola that the Dreyfus affair is a coverup, the resolution of which might impugn the honor of the French army, he realizes that he won't have an easy time exposing the truth, but he tries. He is incensed when the real perpetrator, Esterhazy, is found innocent in a rigged court martial hearing. Disenchanted, Zola risks his career and fame by writing a letter to the President of France and has it published in a major newspaper. The article, called J'Accuse, is a direct accusation of the French army in covering up the innocence of Dreyfus to protect one of its own, and the result of this unpopular letter is the arrest of Zola on a libel charge. To the army's dismay, the court proceedings against him give Zola an even greater platform from which to publicly expose the weakness of the case against Dreyfus.

    In the courtroom, the army has little choice but to try to bully and discredit the popular Zola, and causes him to be shunned by many, even in the country in which he is a revered novelist and moralist. Rather than remaining in France after his conviction, Zola sees it fit to flee to England, his courage and conviction in uncovering the truth unimpaired. The Dreyfus case is ultimately reopened, and Dreyfus is offered a pardon, which he accepts. Dreyfus is set free and promoted in the French army, and Zola can now return to French soil, his actions vindicated by the pardon.

    Sadly, Zola dies before the French court fully exonerates Dreyfus, but his valiant fight in the Dreyfus affair only added to his reputation of one of France's greatest men. Zola's courageous and zealous pursuit of the truth in his novels and in his life make him a symbol of morality and integrity for the ages.

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