- Closing Time: Deindustrialization and Nostalgia in Contemporary France
In Staande! Debout! (2013), a film by Anu Pennanen and Stéphane Querrec set in the aftermath of the closure of the Renault plant at Vilvoorde in Belgium, an ageing former worker struggles to come to terms with the loss of his factory.1 As the fifteenth anniversary of the closure approaches, Félix obsessively relives the fight to save his workplace, still trying to figure out whether something could have been done to change the outcome. Revisiting his former colleagues, he urges them to join him in a commemorative gathering at the monument to their struggle – a huge iron clenched fist – which stands next to the decaying remains of factory. Not all his former colleagues are keen to participate in this ritual, some indicating that they are more preoccupied with their new jobs and daily lives. Nonetheless, in the climactic scene of the film, they gather by the monument at the appointed hour to mark their shared history. If they have ‘moved on’ – to use the everyday language of forward motion that so often frames discussions of loss or trauma – their presence testifies to a desire to keep faith with the past that Félix, the factory and the monument represent. Rather than offering a feel-good ending, however, the film remains more mournful than celebratory: in the moment of return to the site of collective defeat, Félix collapses and dies.
This story echoes in some ways the cautionary tale which opens Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia.2 Boym recounts an incident reported in a Russian newspaper in which a German couple visited for the first time their exiled parents’ native city of Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, after the opening of the old Soviet borders. In what had become, in Boym’s words, ‘an exemplary Soviet construction site’ after World War Two, there was little that the couple recognized from their parents’ descriptions until they came upon the river that runs through the city, the smell of its meadow-like banks finally conjuring up the image of Königsberg they had grown up with. In a spontaneous homecoming ritual, the man bent down to splash his face with the water, only to discover the treachery of nostalgia: the contents of the heavily polluted river burned his face, forcing him to recoil in pain.
Both of these stories centre on figures who feel compelled to return to a time and place from which they are separated not just by individual life [End Page 107] events but by major social or geo-political transformations. Renault’s abrupt withdrawal from Vilwoorde in 1997, with scant regard for legal requirements or industry codes of conduct, soon came to symbolize the process of deindustrialization in Europe and the socially irresponsible excesses of neo-capitalism.3 This sense that an old economic and social order has been lost also registered in the discussion that followed the première of Staande! Debout! at the Glasgow Film Festival in February 2013, where the film-makers explained that they saw their protagonist as the personification of a language of struggle which no longer appears to have any purchase on the contemporary world. The ailing Félix’s predicament might be seen as an extreme kind of nostalgia, particularly if we recover the older sense of that term as a sickness: algia after all implies pain and in the seventeenth century nostalgia was considered a medical problem.4 On the face of it, both Félix and the German visitor to Kaliningrad suffer the physical consequences of attempting to enact an impossible return or homecoming. Yet what Félix revisits is not so much an idealized past as an unresolved one. The factory to which he returns is a site of struggle rather than an idyll of working life.
As the industrial sector has shrunk in Europe and North America since the 1970s, nostalgia for the social world of postwar industrial capitalism has expressed itself in a number of ways, from the development of industrial heritage sites to the phenomenon of the deindustrialization coffee-table book.5 Historians too have been accused of indulging in...