“Losers and Winners”: The Gale of Creative Destruction, Captured on Film

Michael Giberson

Losers and Winners” captures a telling moment in the world economy. Just a small part of a big story – just one telling moment among millions. But somehow, without ever straying too far from the grounds of the German factory being disassembled, the film provides a picture of globalization.

The story, according to the film’s website:

400 Chinese workers break down the Kaiserstuhl coke factory in the Ruhr Valley into manageable parts and ship them back to their homeland: disassembly in the West – reassembly in the Far East. Dortmund’s last coke workers find themselves helping the Chinese to dismantle their own workplace.

A columnist in the Washington Post offers a little more: “After it was completed in the early 1990s, the sprawling $800 million complex was billed as the most modern and efficient anywhere in the world, a monument to German engineering prowess. Unfortunately, it came on line just as the world price of steel and coke collapsed and Europe’s steelmakers began to import cheaper foreign coke from Asia and Eastern Europe.” The factory was purchased by a Chinese company, who rather than operate it in Germany, wanted to move it back to China.

losers%20and%20winners.jpgWhen the movie ended, I felt a little lost. I wanted more background and more perspective. I didn’t have a clear idea of just how big the factory was. Big, sure, but how big? The film claimed that there were 400 Chinese workers, but we never see more than 30 or 40. How many German workers were employed at the plant when it was in operation? If the film mentioned that point, I missed it. The film seemed to lack any overarching organizational principle, other than just the story of the factory being disassembled in Germany and shipped to China.

Slowly it dawned on me what the filmmakers had done. The beauty of the film was in this very lack of any overarching organizational principle other than the story. The film manages to tell us a bit about Europe and a bit about China, something about globalization, technology transfer, the culture of work, and environmental and safety regulations. The film captures a bit of the modern economy, one swirling eddy out of the continuing gale of creative destruction, and it does all of this without a single talking head trying to tell us “what it all means.” No politicians, no labor activists, no anthropologists, no sociologists and absolutely no economists.

Just the story of a few Chinese workers, fewer German workers, a factory being disassembled, a telling moment captured on film.

NOTE: “Losers and Winners” is being shown as part of SilverDocs: The AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, MD (just outside of Washington, DC). The film will be shown again at the AFI Silver Theater this Saturday, June 16, and then in New York City on June 23.