October 26, 2009

Napoleon III - Emperor of the French

File this under incompetent leaders of great states, right next to George W. Bush: 

The Paris of today that everyone dreams about was given to us in the 1860s and 70s by this man, Napoleon III, and his civil servant, Baron Haussmann.  His reign began in liberal democratic enthusiasm, progressed to despotism by way of coup d’état, and ended in dismal, utter, spectacular, and mind bogglingly stupid failure. 

He was manipulated into provoking a war with Prussia, convinced he would win in a walkover.  Bismarck, Prussia’s leader, couldn’t have asked for a more pliable victim.  The military catastrophe is chronicled in the first part of Zola’s book, The Debacle.  thousands of desparately hungry, exhausted soldiers marching to and fro over the French landscape, despondent and demoralized as they realize that they are being led by a gang of complete idiots. 

Think of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 without the wild hilarity, and you’ll have a notion of what I’m reading now.  In the film, The Life of Émile Zola, there is a scene early on in which the general staff is incensed at Zola about this book – they are out to get him. 

After the disaster came the Paris Commune, with its murder, insurrection, and brutal suppression.  Then, as time heals all wounds, socialist, communist, and liberal came together across their political differences to slake their thirst for revenge (la revanche!)  against Germany.  Much to the consternation of some leftists, dreaming of international solidarity, the worker’s parties supported France’s lunge into WWI – the time to regain lost territory had come at last.  More lambs to the slaughter.

There’s our man!

September 21, 2009

Paul Muni as Zola - listening at his trial

I am watching The Life of Émile Zola (1936), corny and stirring by turns, starring Paul Muni.  The movie focuses on his trial for libel that resulted from his publication of J’accuse..! his dissection of the sham conviction of Dreyfus for treason.  Virulent hatred of Jews was at the center of the case, so it’s interesting how the film treats the subject of anti-semitism.

There's our man!The words “Jew” and “anti-semitic” are never spoken in the film.  The theme is all very sotto voce.  When the general staff is looking for a fall guy to take the blame for the spying they have detected, they examine a roster of it’s members.  The religion of each is noted.  The head points to Dreyfus’s name and says, “There’s our man.”

3 JC in glory

When Zola is brought before the kangaroo court for libelling the French military, there are several long shots of the assembled dignataries and spectators. A huge painting of The Crucifixtion makes the point that church and state are not separate in France.

 The violent anti-Dreyfus mobs are shown, but there is no indication of their vicious anti-semitic bent.  Nor is the anti-clericalism of the Dreyfusards hinted.   You have to know the history to read the subtext of the film.

French anti-semitic propaganda     Republican anti-clerical poster