“L’history changed them and they changed history, transformed the way we think and live together. Without them, neither space travel nor universal suffrage. ” In the time of the workers, four-part documentary series broadcast from April 28 on Arte, the first episode of which can be seen exclusively on Liberation.fr, Stan Neumann (1) weaves the thread of a tragic and largely forgotten European epic. The documentary filmmaker delivers an exciting, poignant and without any condescension portrait of those who make our industrial society go round. Punctuated by educational cartoons, songs and numerous archive images, the series navigates between eras without ever losing its consistency. It has successive testimonies of workers, retired or still active, analyzes of researchers and historical episodes told by Bernard Lavilliers, voice over in the right tone. “Who are they ? Where do they come from ? What do they want? What do they have in common? What separates them? “
The four episodes – “Time of the factory (1700-1820)”, “Time of the barricades (1820-1890)”, “Time on the chain (1880-1935)” and “Time of destruction ( from 1936 to the present) ”- draw up a broad panorama, reinforced by the participation of the historian Xavier Vigna, who played the role of adviser on the series. From the creation of factory system English in the XVIIIe century to deindustrialization still underway, revolts of the XIXe century to the great strikes, from the struggle of the Spanish Republicans in the 1930s, to working class traditions, such as “the wig” (which consists of making objects with parts found in the factory), the film tackles multiple themes and also gives leads to those who would like to explore the more ideological aspects: socialisms, communisms, anarchisms…
Contexts evolve, realities persist. “It’s essential to put things in chronological order, explains Stan Neumann to Release. Even if it should be disturbed as much as possible. What is interesting is to awaken what is current in this story. “Juxtaposing it – almost experimentally at times – with today’s speech is a way to spark a kind of spark.”
The time of workers is not only that of passing years. It is also that of the clock, that of the boss, which punctuates the days, confiscates our most precious asset. “Today, the basic structure of operations is unchanged. We always sell our time to someone who has it “, confirms Stan Neumann. Joseph Ponthus (2), a temporary worker in a slaughterhouse, who testified one day of having cried with anger when he returned home. He and his comrades had finished ten minutes early, but the chief refused to let them leave earlier: “A humiliation.” Or Ghislaine Tormos (3), a worker in the automotive industry, who talks about repetitive tasks, integrated by the brain, automated; of this incessant ringing and the perverse effect of modernizing machines: “The worker has to adapt to the speed of a robot, and he is going faster and faster.”
This adventure is also European. The documentary leaps from country to country, erases borders, like a discreet echo of internationalist dreams. “It was essential to get out of the Franco-French prism. It also corresponds to the movement of history, if I dare say, Stan Neumann analysis. From the XXe century, the workers circulate. They are, by the way of things, very European before the letter. It was also important for me to focus, to bring certain events closer together: for example, the crash of Solidarność with the crash of NUM, the union of English miners. These are not “theses”, but a slightly different way of provoking thinking. “ Scottish campaigns in Terni (100 km from Rome), from Sochaux to Silesia… each period has its symbolic fields of struggle. One plunges in particular with interest into one of the first modern workers’ insurrections, orchestrated in the XIXe century by the Luddites, in England, who broke the machines, problematic still present.
At the end of the four hours of documentary, we are certain that the history of the working world has marked the last three centuries as much as military or scientific history. And from the end of the 70s, we felt a form of disillusionment. The series ends with the historian and former spokesperson for Solidarność Karol Modzelewski, who died two months after filming: “Will the working class be reconstituted? I do not know. It is disappearing, maybe not definitive, maybe not total, but still, disappearing. ” Final image, his smile, like a hope in the face of the progressive erasure of “myth” of the worker, “Embodiment of oppressed people”. A loss of class consciousness accelerated by the atomization of employees and the triumph of neoliberalism.
(1) Director of Lenin-Gorky, the setback revolution, Architectures or Austerlitz.
(2) Author of At the line, the Round Table, 2019.
(3) Co-author of Salary of life, Don Quixote, 2014.