Germinal (France, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Why is the price of justice so high?"
- Maheude, Germinal

Germinal, based on the landmark novel by Emile Zola, presents a startlingly authentic and powerful look into the tumultuous, tragedy-riddled lives of 19th century French coal miners. Forced to endure hellish conditions, risk death and dismemberment, and work from before dawn until after dusk, these men and women had only one alternative to mining: starvation. Germinal is not a happy story, but it is impossible not to sense the realism that pervades the project.

The film opens with the arrival of Etienne Lantier (Renaud) at the Voreux coal mine. An out-of-work machinist, Etienne is willing to do almost anything to make money, including descending into the pit and taking pick-axe to coal. He is befriended by Maheu (Gerard Depardieu), who takes him onto his digging crew and invites him to lodge at his house. Once there, Etienne becomes enamored with Catherine (Judith Henry), Maheu's daughter, and she with him -- although neither of them is willing to admit their feelings.

As the drudgery of working in the mine worsens, and pay is cut back, Etienne prods Maheu into organizing a strike. At first peaceful, it doesn't take long before the labor unrest explodes into violence, with predictable consequences.

Director/producer Claude Berri, who is perhaps best known for his films Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, has dedicated Germinal to his father, a furrier who toiled for most of his life in factories and died at the age of 58 from inhaling animal hairs. Actors Gerard Depardieu and Miou-Miou participated in this film as tributes to their own laborer parents.

In a movie that could easily have become little more than a platform for damning 19th-century labor conditions, Berri has breathed life and vigor into both characters and script. We are drawn into Germinal, not only by the finely-realized people who inhabit this world, but by the ability of the cameras to evoke with claustrophobic authenticity the labyrinthine tunnels of the mines.

Berri refuses to gloss over the ugliness of what it was like to work underground, and, in vivid contrast to soot-coated, sweating, weary men and women trudging through candlelit darkness, he presents the pampered lives of those who run the mines. As a strike looms, one such woman hopes that this unfortunate turn of events won't disrupt her plans for a lunch party.

Berri's indictment of plight of the miners is at once simple and moving. While Zola's impassioned cry for social reform is at the heart of Germinal, the interactions of the individual characters represent the picture's soul, and lift it above other movies with similar messages.

There is the unconditional love of one man, Maheu, for his family, and the sacrifices he must endure for them. Maheu is a hard worker, and in his heart he believes in the innate goodness of man. He cannot accept, for example, that soldiers brought in to defend the mine would fire on their own countrymen.

Germinal, which cost $30 million to make, is a lavish production, and it's clear that the money was well-spent. The scenes in the mine are remarkable in conveying the desperate circumstances confronting the characters. How many members of the audience experienced an irrational desire to wash away the accumulating coal dust from their own skin?

Aided in no small part by an exemplary cast, Claude Berri has brought to the screen a masterpiece, interweaving personal tragedy and social upheaval against the background of a way of life that would not yield easily to change. There is much that is right about Germinal, and very little that is wrong. When released in France, this film went toe-to-toe with Jurassic Park. Financial considerations aside, take one look at this movie, and it will be clear which is the real winner.

Germinal (France, 1993)

Run Time: 2:40
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1