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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 180-185
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Teaching Radical History
Teaching about Class and Industrial Capitalism through Film
Mona L. Siegel
If there is one thing I can count on each spring quarter, it is the expressions of disbelief on my European Civilization students' faces when I announce that they will be required to watch a 160-minute long French film, with subtitles. To win over skeptics in the audience, I play up the film for all it is worth: "Germinal," I tell them, "not only has much to teach us about industrialization, class development, and socialism (the reasons for its appearance on the syllabus), it is also a really good film! Released in 1993, it took 146 days to film, and, at a cost of 28 million dollars, it was the most expensive French film ever made. Et bien-sûr, the star-studded cast includes Gérard Depardieu!" Admittedly, I seldom win them over with this rousing speech, but by the end of the quarter, my students repeatedly tell me that Germinal was one of their favorite parts of the class.
The film is director Claude Berri's rendition of Emile Zola's 1885 novel of the same name. The movie, which on the whole remains true to the original story, is set in northern France in the mid-1860s and centers around a mining family, the Maheus. The Voreux mine, in which they work, provides the setting for much of the film. It is dark, loud, and foreboding. As we watch the miners descend into the mineshaft, we get the feeling the earth is eating them alive (a sentiment reinforced by the name Voreux, the voracious one). Three generations of the Maheu family labor in the mine: the grandfather (aptly named Bonnemort, or Good Death, and played by Jean Carmet), the father, Maheu (Depardieu), and the three children old enough to wield [End Page 180] a pick and shovel. It is up to the mother of the family, la Maheude (played by Miou-Miou), to stretch their meager wages far enough to feed and clothe all of them. When wages fall short, as they often do, la Maheude is forced to beg for credit from the storekeeper at the company store or to seek charity from the upper-class shareholders, the Grégoires. The contrast between the Maheu family's tiny, sparsely furnished home and the Grégoires' comfortable mansion could not be more stark. From the very outset of the film, the audience is confronted with a cinematographic rendition of Karl Marx's "two great hostile camps": the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
Maheu and his coworkers accept their meager lot in life, until the arrival of a newcomer, Etienne Lantier (played by the French singer Renaud). Lantier is a mechanic whose previous foreman was a labor organizer. When the mining company cuts pay rates, Lantier encourages the miners to strike. Acting as the miners' spokesperson, Maheu confronts the manager, Monsieur Hennebeau, and explains that his family could barely survive on the old wages; a pay cut amounted to certain starvation. The manager retorts that the economic downturn has hit him hard, too, a claim that rings hollow as we watch his family feast on crawfish and partridge. The boss will not bend, and the miners grow desperate. One tragedy follows another for the Maheu family: Maheu is killed in a confrontation with the National Guard, which was brought in to protect Belgian scabs. When a foreign anarchist sabotages the mine, one daughter is buried alive, and a son is killed attempting to rescue her. In the end, the miners return to work with only a vague promise of change, and la Maheude herself is forced to descend into the mine in order to support the remnants of her family. The plotline is bleak, but the film (and the novel) end with Lantier marching across the fresh spring fields, ready to continue the struggle, as the narrator strikes an optimistic note: "Under the sun's blazing rays, on that youthful morning. . . . Men were growing. A black...