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Festival Year Festival Section
2005 André Antoine and French Realism

Alternative Title 1
Alternative Title 2
Alternative Title 3
Country France
Release Date 1913
Production Co. S.C.A.G.L.
Director Albert Capellani

Format   Speed (fps)
35mm   18
Footage   Time
3017 m.   147'

Archive Source Cinémathèque Française
Print Notes Didascalie in francese / French intertitles

Henry Krauss (Etienne Lantier), Jean Jacquinet (Chaval), Paul Escoffier (Négrel), Dharsay (Souvarine), Mévisto (Le Maheu), Sylvie (Catherine), Albert Bras (Hennebeau), Marc Gérard (Bonnemort), Cécile Guyon (Cécile Hennebeau), Jeanne Cheirel (la Maheude), Max Charlier
Other Credits
scen: Albert Capellani, dal romanzo di/from the novel by Emile Zola; f./ph: Pierre Trimbach, Karénine Mérioban; scg./des: Henri Ménessier
Other Information
dist: Pathé-Consortium-Cinéma; ppp/rel: 2 parti/2 parts, 10.4.1913
Program Notes
The year was 1913, whose overall importance, especially where film realism is concerned, cannot be underestimated. Riding high on the success of his version of Les Misérables (1912), Albert Capellani next set out to make a social fresco of unusual length for the time (approximately 2 and a half hours). The project benefited from uncommon production resources, in accordance with the importance of its subject: an adaptation of Germinal, Zola's famous novel about the life of miners, an enduring symbol of the working-class condition until as late as the 1960s.
Cinema had already come a long way since the painted sets of Zecca, even by the time of Victorin Jasset's remarkable Au pays des ténèbres (1911), a film also partially shot in an abandoned mine, and which demonstrated the early concern for authenticity and the pictorial talent of the master director of the Éclair studios. However, this short film (705 metres) remained perfunctory due to inadequate means. Germinal marked the emergence of the industrial landscape in the French cinema.
Besides its scope and anticipated dramatic highlights, Capellani's Germinal was a milestone as much for the spirit of its adaptation as for its expressive power. It marked a clear break with the usual discourse associated with this kind of production, closely monitored as it was. In particular, the rule was that the class struggle be swept under the carpet, along with the deeper causes of social struggle and union political activities. The ultimately reprehensible behavior of the bosses, executives, and engineers was always being dramatized as exceptional, and represented in terms of individual psychology and morality, and finally condemned under these terms. Opposite them, the earnest workers were commonly depicted as victims of fate, which the goodness of their superiors would strive to improve. But being ignorant and naïve, the workers could also be led by the nose by lazy and corrupt agitators, who preached revolt between rounds at the barroom. A strike can destroy families, and lead to violence and the very destruction of their means of earning a living. Social peace is the best solution.
If we examine the opening and the end of Capellani's film, we note the clear intention here is to side with the working class and its emancipation, by depicting the miners without over-romanticizing, and with respect for reality. What immediately strikes the viewer is that this is a collective drama, made explicit by its detailed settings and location shooting, and conveyed by real-life actions. Each individual takes part in a kind of social chorus, making it a question of common destiny. (Certain studio elements are less credible.) The actors perform as an ensemble, according to the standards of realism of the time. Their characters are defined by their accoutrements, their sober manner, and the lighting, rather than by any acting to the camera. The dramatic action is staged logically, in the middle distance, without emphatic effects.
Such maturity is stylistic, but first of all ideological, and it reminds us - as do the actors (Krauss, Sylvie, Mévisto, et al.) - of Capellani's mentor, André Antoine, whom S.CA.G.L. was trying to woo at the time. There are no grounds for claiming that Antoine, a close friend of Zola's, took part in the screenplay of this Germinal, though the film seems to bear the marks of Antoine's influence even before he made his own filmmaking debut.
The anarchist press of the period, usually finicky (Le Libertaire, Le Cinéma du peuple), gave their blessing to this original film enterprise, which was released 10 months before the Great War. - PHILIPPE ESNAULT