Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s mine disaster saga is both a stirring social drama and a remarkable feat of technical engineering — the underground cave-ins and gas-fed fires are still frightening in their realism. Criterion’s extras offer critical and historical context for a pacifist statement filmed during a tense political time in France and Germany.
The Criterion Collection 908
1931 / B&W / 1:19 flat full frame / 88 93 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date January 30, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Alexander Granach, Fritz Kampers, Daniel Mendaille, Ernst Busch, Elisabeth Wendt.
Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Film Editor: Jean Oser
Set design: Ernö Metzner, Karl Vollbrecht
Original Music: G. von Regelius
Written by Ladislaus Vajda, Peter Martin Lampel, Herbert Rappaport, Karl Otten, Anna Gmeyner.
Produced by Seymour Nebenzal, Nero-Film AG
Directed by G. W. Pabst
G.W. Pabst could seemingly do no wrong in the German silent film industry. His string of silent pictures gained classic status, and his several excellent early sound features include the impressive musical The Threepenny Opera. The quality of Pabst’s work collapsed when the National Socialists took power — it’s not entirely clear whether he was trapped in Austria or stayed voluntarily.
1931’s Kameradschaft, or Comradeship, is as anti-Nationalist a picture as one could imagine, even after (according to historian Hermann Barth) its leftist sentiments were toned down considerably. It’s an unofficial follow-up to Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (also newly released by Criterion), a tragedy of trench warfare in WW1. It’s now ten years later but France and Germany are noncombatants in name only. The harsh surrender terms have crippled Germany and unemployment is high.
Based on an incident that took place several decades earlier, the thrilling story of a mining disaster is emotionally powerful, realistic and technically sophisticated. American technicians were often in awe of the precise work being done in Berlin — which is why so many German artists were welcome in Hollywood.
The storytelling is sophisticated as well. Pabst and his screenwriters sketch the situation in terms easily understood. A mining district is split between French and German territory. Unemployed German miners aren’t allowed through the border gate to look for work, but those with jobs are welcome to visit French beer halls. An underground fire in a French mine gets out of hand when a gas leak causes an explosion and a number of cave-ins, trapping an entire shift of workers 2,000 feet below. The traumatized French working community mobs the gates. When the rescue begins, the German miner Wittkopp (Ernst Busch) rallies his colleagues into forming a cross-border rescue group. He argues that their former enemies are still fellow miners, and national differences should be forgotten during emergencies. With the blessing of the mine manager, the Germans race to the French colliery with their more advanced equipment and volunteer their aid. Two more efforts are covered. Acting alone, an elderly retired French miner uses a secondary shaft to descend into the stricken mine, to try to locate his grandson. Three Germans working underground realize that their mineshaft has a passage that connects with the French mine, deep underground. It’s separated by a subterranean border barrier, reading ‘Frontiere 1919.’ Led by the emotional Kasper (Alexander Granach), the Germans take it upon themselves to break through and look for survivors. They find the old man and his grandson, but a subsequent cave-in blocks the exit.
Kameradschaft works first as a disaster picture.The French and German miners speak different languages but their aims, needs and fears are identical — men on both sides are most afraid of gas fires. Once on the French side, the Germans find themselves in an underground horse stable — the animals work way down in the depths, pulling ore buckets on little rail lines. Pabst’s set designers create spectacular, extremely realistic underground havoc. When the rescuers break through walls, it’s obviously real masonry. Enormous sets show vast expanses of tunnels and chambers that smash to bits as ceilings cave in. While men scramble to safety, a huge tunnel collapses chamber by chamber, with timbers and rocks that don’t look fake. When fire breaks out, we ‘feel’ the waves of pressure that break down brick walls and blast forth with tongues of flame thirty and forty feet long.
Although known for his expressionist silents — his The Love of Jeanne Ney is wonderful — before sound came in Pabst had already turned to a more realist mode, and then to essentially humanist pictures like the socially conscious Diary of a Lost Girl. He’s particularly good at sketching the human element in the story. The organizer Wittkopp doesn’t use slogans to inspire a rescue party, but appeals to his fellow miners’ professional self-respect. Our trio of beer-drinking Germans almost start a fight on the French side when language differences make one of them think he’s been snubbed by a French girl, Anna (Elisabeth Wendt). The next morning, Anna must run for an hour to reach the mine, fearing that both her brother and beau are trapped underground. The three jolly Germans take it upon themselves to initiate their own rescue effort, knowing that they’ll probably be punished for their initiative. And the old Frenchman climbs down endless wooden ladders to reach the affected chambers — he’s so ancient, we’re not at all certain that he’ll make it.
The altruistic Wittkopp is balanced by the Alexander Granach’s earthy, vulgar Kaspar, the kind of worker hero who acts out of stubborn instinct. Granach reminds us a bit of Italian actor Folco Lulli in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear — he’s stout and strong, with a hearty disposition. Granach wasn’t a celebrated star, but he can claim at least three roles in enduring classics: Dreyer’s Nosferatu (1922), this film, and Fritz Lang’s American anti-Fascist picture Hangmen Also Die! Granach’s character in the Lang film has the same hearty-belligerent German attitude, even when playing a detective in the employ of the Nazi occupiers of Czechoslovakia.
Realistic details show the working conditions of the miners, who clean themselves not at home but in a large communal shower. They store their street clothes by locking them up in the air, on chains. The working families live humble lives. Anna loves a local miner but has decided to return to Paris to avoid a life of misery. In the film’s most emotional moment the German hausfraus rush to bid farewell to the rescue team. Wittkopp’s thin, passive-looking wife keeps pace with the rescue truck as Wittkopp explains why he must risk his life to help his brother workers. She smiles weakly, as if she has no choice but to approve even though her husband might not return. The visual is reminiscent of one of those weary Appalachian mothers from our own Depression-era photographic studies.
Kameradschaft qualifies as one of a number of early ’30s German films with a leftist message: nationalism and wars oppress good working men, who shouldn’t be restricted restricted by artificial political barriers or divided by self-interest and tribal rivalries. We hear plenty of grousing from the sidelines, of Germans that don’t trust Frenchmen and vice versa. One German worker asks if he will be insured if he’s injured on French soil. Pabst’s treatment of these scenes is simple and honest. Even a determined cross-national handshake scene, with a truck-in to hands clasped in solidarity, does not feel forced.
In 1930 there were plenty of political factions trying to drive wedges between Germans and Frenchmen. Considering the cruelties of the then- recent war, it’s heartening to see the comradeship on display. Of course, it’s an emergency situation — almost ninety years later, we cheer like children when firefighters from far away show up to help put out local fires. The message is thoughtful, not subversive: why can’t we cooperate like this in other ways? Yes, the formula is simplified, but it’s not false.
Pabst marshals his forces as would the director of a modern epic. The scenes above ground use large mobs of frightened relatives, with nervous guards and police holding them back. A meeting between workers and management on a set of steps is almost as stylized as Lang’s Metropolis. In a scene that feels like pure silent expressionism, a French miner running out of breathable air suffers a fit of delirium. When some German rescuers reach him, he thinks he’s back in the war fighting for his life. To illustrate his hallucination Pabst cuts directly to shots of trench combat (possibly from Westfront 1918). It’s a brilliantly shot and edited sequence.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Kameradschaft looks far better than the mangled copy we first saw on PBS back in the late 1970s. With the original German negative lost the restorers combined a surviving German print with pieces of a French print, including a ‘lost’ ending. A formal ceremony takes place 2,000 feet underground, with representatives from each country presiding over a new barrier wall being established, to keep French and German miners separate. The relevance today is greater than ever.
The 2K digital restoration is cleaned up considerably although many scenes are lightly scored with fine scratches. But the show is intact and the images stable and strong. The German main title sequence hasn’t survived. An insert card describes a missing shot, and another explains that the restored final scene actually comes from the surviving French copy.
Criterion’s extras illuminate the movie with fascinating background and context. Expert Hermann Barth explains that the story was based on a 1906 disaster in which German miners came to the aid of their French comrades. Barth also explains that, although the final film downplays the socialist, anti-nationalist aspect, the original script made much more of class conflicts — censors and coal industry pressure caused Pabst to drop critical dialogue indicating that the management isn’t really interested in saving lives. The original treatments were a bit more like The Wages of Fear. We also learn about the reception of Kameradschaft in theaters. Depression-weary Berliners had little use for such a gritty tale of hardship, says Barth. But in Paris the show was a huge success.
Kameradschaft is completely bi-lingual. Although the disc’s English subtitles translate everything, we’re told that original European prints carried no subs at all. Barth explains that both French and German-speaking audiences were left to infer what was going on in scenes with the other language. He decides that the plan works well with the exception of the dance hall scene, where miscommunication between a French girl and a German man almost starts a fight. Viewers knowing only one language may follow just one side of the argument, while bilingual viewers will immediately realize that neither side has insulted the other. The scene’s point couldn’t be clearer — miscommunication is one way that walls go up and wars are started.
Editor Jean Oser is heard in an older audio interview, edited above scenes from the French version, including the French title sequence. Between Oser and another video interview with the UCLA Archive’s Jan-Christopher Horak, we get the full picture of the enormous engineering feat used to create the impressive underground disaster images. For the shot of the long tunnel collapsing, a train engine was used to drag a large BOAT down the length of tunnel set, smashing it from above. It looks terrifyingly real.
Luc Sante’s essay in the illustrated insert booklet mentions a more notorious leftist film shown in Germany immediately before Hitler’s election win. I reviewed it at the old DVD Savant page: Kuhle Wampe or, Who Owns the World? Pabst doesn’t go in for Brecht’s theater technique, where the interplay of random individuals just happens to express the author’s political point of view. In Kameradschaft most of the ‘messages’ are expressed visually.
The two new featurettes-documentaries were directed by Robert Fischer, for his Fiction Factory production company. Fischer’s also adorns Indicator’s new Blu-ray of Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick. Criterion’s companion disc Westfront 1918 complements this release.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Very Good +
Supplements: New interview with film scholar Hermann Barth on the film’s production; 1998 audio interview with editor Jean Oser, featuring footage from the French version of the film; interview from 2016 with film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak on the historical context of the film; insert booklet with an essay by Luc Sante, plus and the 1930 story by Karl Otten that the film was based on.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 10, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson