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Losers and Winners

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DIRECTED BY ULRIKE FRANKE AND MICHAEL LOEKEN
DISTRIBUTED BY FIRST RUN/ICARUS FILMS
DVD, 96 minutes, color, 2006

Reviewed by Jennifer Rudolph

What happens when the German efficiency and discipline that built the world’s most modern coking plant collides with the frontier industriousness of china and its hunger for modern industry? Losers and Winners vividly portrays such an encounter by documenting the issues, perceptions, and emotions surrounding the purchase of Germany’s Kaiserstuhl coking plant by a Chinese company, and the subsequent dismantling of the plant in preparation for its shipment and reassembly in China. By chronicling the eighteen-month dismantling process, the filmmakers expose the clash between the perspectives and cultures of the German breakdown crew and the Chinese managers and laborers who were sent to take the plant apart— piece by piece. It is a close-up view of the two sides of globalization.

The film captures the palpable tension between the Germans, literally watching their livelihoods being taken from them, and the Chinese, practically giddy with thoughts of furthering China’s modernization. One German worker bitterly comments that Kaiserstuhl is being moved to China to advance coke production for China’s steel industry, with additional plants to be built with Kaiserstuhl as a model. He laments that he knows what is happening, and that “we’d better watch out.” His fear of the repercussions of the shifting patterns of labor in the globalizing world is tangible.

On the other side, the Chinese workers proudly see their work in Germany as a symbol of an ascendant china with a glorious future. One of the Chinese managers, looking at a poster of two Mercedes Benz cars, captures the views of both sides when he explains that the old Mercedes is driving away from him and that the new one is driving toward him. After this job is done, he’ll get the car of his choice and drive into the future. Later in the film, he comments that he hopes the next factory that he’s sent to dismantle is Airbus, but by that time, he hopes that the Germans are manufacturing spaceships and that the need for coking plants has been left far behind. His view is rosy, with everyone benefiting from the positive trajectory of globalization.

In addition to the differing impacts of globalization on the workers, the culture clash between the two groups is fascinating. The Germans are incredulous at the speed and lack of environmental and safety consciousness of the Chinese workers. the Chinese find the Germans’ meticulous observance of regulations, especially safety regulations, and the resultant German disapproval of Chinese methods condescending. But the Chinese managers are confident that only successful results count in the end. China, in their view, is the clear winner here.

Losers and Winners has much to offer students of China, Germany, globalization, sociology, and labor. For those who don’t want to immerse themselves in the dynamics of this sometimes dry film, the “culture clash,” “exemplary workers,” and “end of the era” sections capture the main themes effectively. Each can easily be used independently in the classroom.