Devil's Island's Devil's Advocate
The sum total of memorable people cannot have increased that exponentially, though the number of celebrities has, along with documentary and fictionalized screen lives. In the 1930s, the field was the demesne of Warners, which milked it three times in three years with William Dieterle directing Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur (the actor’s Oscar, on his third nomination) and Juarez sandwiched around The Life of Emile Zola.
Critics bought into publicity about authenticity and factual accuracy in the latter, but this was more an indication of ignorance about others’ history. The timing and title of Nana, the coincidence of Dreyfus’ arrival and Zola’s (Muni) abrupt departure, Mme. Lucia Dreyfus’ (Gale Sondergaard) visit and impassioned plea, and many details, are so much audience-bait hokum. Its Oscarized three-man screenplay from a Matthew Josephson book, the biopic is entertaining of its type despite long static readings like the great man’s famous “I Accuse” and Anatole France’s (Morris Carnovsky) eulogy.
This 1937 best film Oscar winner is in MoMA’s second annual collaboration with Berlin film institutions in “The Weimar Touch” of two-and-a-half dozen features influenced, within six degrees of separation, by Weimar Republic output but made over twenty-six years following its effective demise.
Much of this Life focuses really on the short span near the end of that life and the cause célèbre for which he would be most known abroad, even though the near two hours avoids speaking the key word Jew, merely displaying it handwritten onscreen for a couple frames. Nor does the film breathe a word of the gadfly muckraker’s earlier The Debacle denunciation of ineptitude in government and hidebound aristocratic armed forces during the humiliating loss of the brief Franco-Prussian War.
The author had actually arrived at fame, or notoriety, and fortune way before the 1880 Nana portrait of demimonde morals and luxury in the Second Empire. But Hollywood could not resist an opening where in 1870 a woman of the streets (Erin O’Brien-Moore) unwittingly supplies her name for that eponymous novel to the broke unknown writer as he shares a glass with broke unknown painter friend Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff).
With a few heavy touches on pusillanimous publishers, editors, censors and prosecutors, he is brought to fin de siècle bourgeois success, married (Gloria Holden, wasted as wife Alexandrine), greying, rounder of figure, delicate of health and bid adieu by the still-broke painter. The anti-Church, -corruption and -hypocrisy scientific naturalism literary lion has by now lost youthful fire until drawn back into the fray by l’affaire Captain Alfred Dreyfus (best supporting actor Oscar, Joseph Schildkraut), in which that wealthy Jewish career soldier is railroaded into being convicted as the German spy detected in military high command in Paris. His in camera court-martial a travesty, the disgraced scapegoat is sentenced to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island.
Four years later, Colonel Georges Picquart (Henry O’Neill) uncovers evidence that the venal bordereau traitor was actually Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), but Louis Calhern’s Major Dort and others push the monarchist Catholic officers (various cardboard actors) to exonerate him and uphold the honor of the army.
Zola’s prompt open “J’accuse” letter in Georges Clemenceau’s (Grant Mitchell) paper was over much time to help bring about a fickle public’s outrage and the tribunals that would uncover forged evidence, set matters somewhat right, and result in delayed pardons, dishonorable discharges and suicides. Events of nearly a decade are cinema-compressed and centered around Zola’s being tried for and convicted of libel, fleeing to England for a spell, and returning vindicated and raring to go again.
LEZ reflects scripts and acting technique of its time and, as indicated, pauses too long for non-dramatic statements. Beyond implications for today about sacrificial lambs and cover-ups in high places, however, it stacks up well against many a film biography of the subsequent three-quarters of a century.
(Released by MGM Home Entertainment and rated "G" by MPAA.)