During the late 1920’s to the early 1930’s, G. W. Pabst’s directorial career was on fire. In 1929, he crafted three films. The two Louise Brooks movies that made him synonymous with silent film, ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’, and the mountaineering movie starring Leni [Yes, THAT one!] Riefenstahl, ‘The White Hell of Pitz Palu’. By 1930 – 1931, he directed his first talkie, the war movie, ‘Westfront 1918’ and the musical, ‘The Threepenny Opera’. With every single film in this short period of Pabst’s career, critics and movie-goers championed them as do the cinephiles and historians now. But at the end of 1931, there was one more film Pabst made that many have forgotten about, or completely don’t know exists until Eureka/Masters of Cinema dual-packed it along with ‘Westfront’, ‘Comradeship’ [or ‘Kameradschaft’ in its native German tongue].
‘Kameradschaft’ is based on the real-life 1906 Courrières mining disaster, an event which ended in the deaths of 1,099 miners – often dubbed as ‘Europe’s worst mining accident’. In the film, there are two sides to the mine. The French side where a fire breaks out and causes the tunnel to collapse in on them, and the German side whom establishes a rescue team to lead the search for their fallen French neighbours. Despite the film having no real leading man, there are three older and rugged German miners who start their own secretive rescue to find any further survivors, Kasper (Alexander Granach), Wilderer (Fritz Kempers) and Wittkopp (Ernst Busch).
‘Kameradschaft’, in essence, is a propaganda film. There is no other way to define it. But throwing that term on it is derogatory and ill-conceived. But even if this is propaganda, it is one of the firmest, warmest and most intelligent films of its ilk. This is nothing like the racist and pro-KKK attitudes of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ or the terrifying and unstoppable power of ‘Triumph of the Will’, ‘Kameradschaft’ does not wish to cause a divide between the two nations of Germany and France but unite them under such a horrible tragedy, no matter how heavy-handed it is in its approach. Whilst doing so, Pabst has imagined the film through a series of dank, dreary and dark tunnels and caverns – illuminated by oil lanterns at every turn. This set, impeccably built from scratch, shows the sheer craft and talent by designers, Erno Metzner and Karl Vollbrecht. Every minute detail makes the mine come to life, from the industrial carts to the collapsed rubble separating the miners from the outside world, the scenery drips with authenticity and atmosphere.
But when the film isn’t placing the viewer in a claustrophobic environment, it puts them in a situation where people are in absolute distress or anger. Outside of the mine, panicked loved ones and townsfolk surround the gates with stationed guards everywhere. And earlier on in the film, Kasper, Wilderer, and Wittkopp attend a dance hall a night before the disaster in hopes of getting drunk off their high horse. One of them asks Francoise, a young French woman, for a dance but is ultimately turned down. Feeling total rejection because of his nationality, the miner almost starts a brawl between the woman’s boyfriend and his friends, when in reality, she was just tired and wasn’t in the mood for a dance. It’s a simple misunderstanding that is taken out of proportion.
However, despite the desperation, the conflict and most importantly, the horror, ‘Kameradschaft’ is still hopeful that these men will get out alive. It’s beating socialist heart lies here and whilst it seems pessimistic on the surface, the determination that fills three German miners in getting each person out alive is what reigns triumphant, no matter what has happened to them. A young miner is severely ill but Wittkopp takes him to a part of the mine where the air is much less shallow. Another, after seeing one of the miners in a gas mask, has a PTSD-like flashback to when he was a shell-shocked soldier serving in WWI. The man in the gas mask simply takes him under his wing. Pabst isn’t just interested in creating a sombre atmosphere. And when the jolly and uplifting finale rolls around, it brings a big smile to any who have seen it. ‘Kameradschaft’ is simply incredible.