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Socialist Review, May 1994

Anna Gluckstein


Reaping the harvest


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dir: Claude Berri

If anyone needs reminding how brutal and stultifying capitalism can be then Germinal is the film to see.

The story (based on Emile Zola’s 19th century novel) centres on a mining community in recession hit France in the late 1860s. The hardships and deprivation of the miners’ everyday lives are highlighted by the Maheu family. The family of nine all sleep in one room, with every member over the age of ten working down dangerous mines for wages that barely keep them alive. The cutting of these meagre wages proves the final straw for the miners who, led by the militant newcomer ... Étienne and Maheu himself (Gérard Depardieu), strike.

The struggle that ensues is completely gripping and relevant to any modern strike. As the miners grow in confidence led by Maheu, the previously ‘good worker’, the strike very soon becomes more than a question of wages, generalising out to issues of basic justice, the value of human life versus profit.

The strength and sheer guts of the miners are mirrored by Maheude (Maheu’s wife). Even as her family are dying around her through consumption and the bullets of the army, she refuses to contemplate surrender.

The miners’ struggle isn’t just against the mine owners and the state but with other workers, to get their support.

Whilst the miners fight for a crust of bread, the film brilliantly portrays how a recession hits the bosses – a mine owner explains to his dinner party guests how competition and falling prices mean workers have to pay for the crisis as he stuffs more lobster into his mouth.

This is a marvellous film which is rich in insights into the cruel workings of capitalism and how it has forged a power which can fight back – the working class. However, Berri’s interpretation of Zola’s book is deeply pessimistic – he concentrates on the decline of the struggle into acts of violence culminating in the castration of the local grocer who sold bread for sex with the desperate miners’ wives. He himself admitted in a discussion after the film that his hopes for the future are dim. However, my memories of Germinal the book are different. The book is inspiring in its depiction of the depth of humanity and bravery workers can express even in the direst of circumstances. The last lines of the book illustrate how Zola felt about the possibilities for the future:

‘The sap was rising in abundance with whispering voices, the germs of life were opening with a kiss. Men were springing up, a black avenging host was slowly germinating in the furrows, thrusting upward for the harvests of future ages. And very soon their germination would crack the earth asunder.’

See this film – read the book.

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