Striking at the heart
At a cost of $30 million, Genninal
is the most expensive movie ever to come out of Europe. But it’s money well spent, reckons Alan Morrison, as he talks to director Claude Berri.
A decade ago. Britain was reeling from some of the worst scenes ofcivil disturbance it had witnessed in modern times. The govemment and British Coal had sounded the death knell for the country's mining industry. but the working-class communities. generations of whom had put their lives into the pits and whose very existence depended on them remaining open. refused to give in without a fight. The strike. which struggled on with increasing desperation into 1985. tore communities apart. splitting worker from fellow worker. as Thatcherite politicians gleefully hammered the final nails into the Trade Unions‘ coffin. Now. in l994. even the members of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers feel stabbed in the back by a government who promised support but has let the pendulum swing closer and closer over the remaining pits.
‘lt’s not enough just to have a book to
transmit emotions; you also need the corresponding sensitivity to the subject.’
What is most surprising. then. in Claude Bcrri‘s big- budget. big-screen adaptation of Emile Zola's 19th century novel Germinul is that. a century earlier. the seeds for bloody class conflict in the mining industry were already begining to sprout. As the men. women and children from one town harangue their local shopkeeper for bread. there are echoes of France‘s revolutionary mob descending on the insensitivity of Marie Antoinette's aristocracy. As they storm a neighbouring pit that continues to work in spite of their call to strike. the squad of soldiers that repulse them fastforward in history to remind us of the police battle-lines of the 1980s. Bayonets and uniforms may have become batons and riot shields. but the sentiments and frustrations remain the same.
Germinul is set among the coal mines of Northern France during the Second Napoleonic Empire and chronicles the growing political spirit of a desperately poor community. where the children join both parents underground before they are into their teens and mothers can never find enough food to put on the table. Travelling machinist Lantier (Renaud) joins a crew led by the popular Maheu (Gerard Depardieu) and finds lodging in the latter‘s home. where he becomes attracted to his new friends daughter Catherine (Judith Henry). When the pit‘s management decide to lower wages. Lantier‘s latent
24 The List 6~|9 May I994
socialist ideals are stirred into action. and he
convinces his fellow miners to start a strike fund. When the strike itselfbegins. the family is torn apart when Catherine goes to work at a near-by mine; but.
inevitably. the conflict and suffering widens. Director Claude Berri is at pains to stress that his original vision of Germinul was not as grand as the
$30 million epic that graces the screen and which
took a long seven months to shoot. More familiar to British audiences as the director of charming Marcel Pagnol adaptations Jan: De Flore/re and Manon [)es Sources. Berri has almost 30 years experience as a producer for the likes of Eric Rohmer (Ma Nui/ ('lw: Mum/e). Milos Forman (Va/mun!) and Roman Polanski ('l'ess). Here. he has delivered a film that is both broad in social scope and painstaking in intimate detail. The huge mine sets are stunnineg impressive: a descent down this pit is like entering an industrial circle of Hell. where the air is filled not by the dry dust ofcoal but an oily mucous that runs down the walls into the lungs and fills the workers' days with a greasy. sickly. brown light.
The acting also brings to life a period when people were one step from slavery. half a step from starvation. Although they may not correspond exactly with Zola‘s descriptions — particularly Depardieu. whose portly frame was. allegedly.
caused by abandoning his diet when his son was sent
to jail during the shoot — there is undoubtedly a commitment to the film‘s emotional and political content. Berri finds this reasonably easy to explain. ‘My father worked in the fur trade and, although we didn‘t live in misery. my parents worked from home for an employer.‘ he begins. ‘Gerard wanted to play
this for the same reasons. probably. that I did it: his
father was a worker. He wanted to play his father
and. during pre-production. he brought me his
father's photograph and put it in my office. I chose Renaud for his role because I thought he was the only
(terminal: ‘broad in social scope and painstaking in intimate detail’
person in France today who could play it; I didn't know that his grandfather was a miner. And Miou- Miou [who plays Depardieu‘s wife] . . . her mother sold vegetables in the market. and she too was drawn back to her childhood. And so the four of us did this not only for the sake of making a film; we were really involved. It was a film that drew on something very deep within us — our education. our childhood. our parents . . . It's not enough just to have a book to transmit emotions; you also need the corresponding sensitivity to the subject.‘
As they storm a neighbouring pit that continues to work in spite of their call to strike, the squad of soldiers that repulse them iastiorward in history to remind us
of the police battle-lines of the 19805.
All of this was enough to encourage over six million French citizens to rise up and occupy seats in their native cinemas. rivalling the country‘s attendances for Jurassic Park. it has put Berri as a director on a stronger footing than ever. although having trawled through the past with this. the l’agnol films and (ivrminu/‘s predecessor. the World War ll collaboration drama L'mnus. maybe it's time for him to set his sights on events less distanced by time. ‘I think that there should be some continuity. that i should make a film about what is happening today. a film which has a meaning connected to (Jemima/f he agrees. ‘Unfortunately. there is not a Zola alive today with whom i could work on a contemporary social film.‘
Germinul opens a! the Glasgow l’r'lm Theatre and
Iidinburg/z Cameo ()Il Friday 6 May.
sponsored by BACARDI BLACK