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.