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Struggling writer émile Zola (Paul Muni) shares a drafty Paris attic with his friend, painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). A chance encounter with a street prostitute (Erin O'Brien-Moore) hiding from a police raid leads to his first bestseller, Nana, an exposé of the steamy underside of Parisian life.
Other successful books follow. Zola becomes rich and famous; he marries Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) and settles down to a comfortable life in his mansion. One day, his old friend Cézanne, still poor and unknown, visits him before leaving the city. He tells Zola that he has become complacent, a far cry from the zealous reformer of his youth.
Meanwhile, a French secret agent steals a letter addressed to a military officer in the German embassy. The letter confirms there is a spy within the top French army staff. With little thought, the army commanders decide that Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is the traitor. He is courtmartialed and imprisoned on Devil's Island in French Guyana.
Later, Colonel Picquart (Henry O'Neill), the new chief of intelligence, discovers evidence implicating Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat) as the spy, but he is ordered by his superiors to remain silent, as this revelation would embarrass them. He is quickly reassigned to a distant post.
Years go by. Finally, Dreyfus's loyal wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) pleads with Zola to take up her husband's cause. Zola is reluctant to give up his comfortable life, but the evidence she has brought him piques his curiosity. He publishes a letter in the newspaper accusing the army of covering up a monstrous injustice. Zola barely escapes from an angry mob incited by agents provocateurs employed by the military.
As he had expected, he is brought to trial for libel. His attorney, Maitre Labori (Donald Crisp) does his best, but the presiding judge refuses to allow him to bring up the Dreyfus affair and the military witnesses all commit perjury, with the exception of Picquart. Zola is found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. He reluctantly accepts the advice of his friends and flees to England, where he continues to write on behalf of Dreyfus.
A new administration finally admits that Dreyfus is innocent, those responsible for the coverup are forced to resign or are dismissed, and Walsin-Esterhazy flees the country. However, Zola dies of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty stove the night before the public ceremony in which Dreyfus is exonerated.