Kameradschaft [Comradeship] (1931)
Dir. G. W. Pabst
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
In the first shot of Kameradschaft [Comradeship] (1931), glass marbles clink together in the dust on a rural road. Two boys shout, one in French, and one in German, each claiming the marbles for himself. Their scuffle is broken up by their fathers, who turn from guarding the border between France and Germany. The year is 1919. After WWI, the borders between France and Germany have shifted, and the French have wound up with a series of former German coal mines in the new Alsace-Lorraine provinces. The financial burdens of the recovering countries has led to soaring unemployment, and we see the miners asking for work across the border. Tensions following WWI have not entirely disappeared, and the boys’ scuffle over the marbles almost seems to signal the larger sentiments between the French and German miners. These conflicts are expressed largely in individual, somewhat disjointed sequences, like a scene in a French dance hall. Three Germans, Kaplan, Kasper, and Wilderer (Gustav Püttjer, Alexander Granach, and Fritz Kampers, respectively), visit a French dance bar across the border. When Kaplan asks a young French woman to dance, and when she politely declines in French, they misunderstand her and think she has insulted him by refusing to dance with a German.
Kameradschaft doesn’t really have a single protagonist. There are a few interwoven storylines, like that of the three German miners, or a love story between Wittkopp (Ernst Busch) and his wife, Anna (Elisabeth Wendt), or the story of an old miner (played by Alex Bernard) searching for his grandson (played by Pierre-Louis). But these seem to be presented as secondary to the larger plot, which is centred around a single event rather than a single character. One day, part of the French mine explodes, stranding several hundred French miners in the darkness below. This is based on a real event, the 1906 Courrièrs mine disaster, which killed 1099 miners. One of the German miners, Wittkopp, hears about the disaster and urges, in a passionate speech about the brotherhood of man, the German miners to join him and go rescue the trapped Frenchmen. They load up former army trucks and drive across the border (narrowly avoiding being shot by the French border patrol) and arrive at the French mine entrance. The French, who briefly think they’re being invaded (oh, the bitter irony), figure it out and help them descend into the mines. “Germans, that’s incredible,” says one of the wizened French miners. Independently, the three German miners, Kaplan, Kasper, and Wilderer, put aside their distrust of the French after an empathetic turn of heart – “what if we were in their place?” – and break down the iron bars of the “Grenze/Frontière 1919” [“Border 1919”] gate separating the two countries’ mineshafts. Eventually, the German team rescues the surviving French miners, as well as the three Germans, who get trapped in a flooding engine room, and the penultimate scene is a celebration of the returning survivors.
“A miner is a miner.” The message of Kameradschaft is one of unity. At one point, a Frenchman and a German shake hands before entering the mines to rescue the fallen. The camera zooms in on their clasped hands intensely, and lingers there for far longer than is necessary. It’s a bit obvious, but the message is clear. The film also recognises its own message and plays with it. At the final celebration, a man stands on the stage (I can’t remember if he’s French or German – but that’s precisely the point) and shouts, “Where’s our sworn enemy?” before embracing the man standing underneath the opposite flag. This final speech is a message of unity, of brotherhood beyond nationalism, of rejecting war. “Gentlemen, we’re all miners,” says one. Another says: “It doesn’t matter that we’re French or German,” and that they shouldn’t just be waiting for the next war to come along and shoot at each other.
What blew me away in Kameradschaft was the camera movement. The camera seems to defy gravity, soaring and turning in the cramped space of the coal mines with a grace that I have seen in few films. For a film made in 1931, when the use of hand-held cameras was relatively limited and often shaky, this is all the more impressive. This is most clearly seen in the film’s many reverse tracking shots. The miners advance slowly through the cluttered mines, towards the viewer, and somehow the camera precedes them, twisting and ducking, creating the labyrinthine feeling. It would be far less impressive if these had been simple zooms, but the camera actually moves. Nor is it on a track, as we see boulders and swamps separating us from the miners. This heightens the realism of the film, as well as its tension. I actually held my breath at some points, not only for the miners, but also for the cameramen. I can only imagine how they avoided tripping constantly. Credit should be given to Erno Metzner and Karl Vollbrecht, who designed the highly-realistic set of the mines. Vollbrecht is also known as the architect of films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Having been in tunnels in the north of France myself, I can attest to their realistic design. At another point, the camera captures the lift descending into the darkness of the mines from directly above. It’s a stunning shot, and the camera brings out both the light of the external world and the pitch-black void beneath.
What allows the cinematography to so brutally capture the conditions of the mines is the relative limitedness of the soundscape. The soundtrack of Kameradschaft is stripped down to its extreme: there is music in only three scenes, and it is purely diegetic. We see a band playing in a bar visited by the three Germans, and later a band accompanies the celebrations for the rescuers. Silence pervades every inch of the mines, mimicking its overwhelming feeling of both claustrophobia and isolation, and underlining the film’s aesthetic of realism. But the film does not lack tension. In the silence of the mines, noise becomes danger. The pickaxes strike the walls like a ticking time bomb, and the viewer waits with bated breath, expecting the often-foreshadowed gas explosion to come at any moment. Falling rocks, explosions, and shouts of “gas!” and “fire!” are what break the silence, linking the aural world with danger.
Although Kameradschaft is ostensibly about the post-war period, it is also at its core a war film. Visually, the mines recall the dark, winding, claustrophobic atmosphere of the trenches, and the miners – all men, of course – strap on tools and gas masks as they enter the mines. The sounds of dynamite are reminiscent of artillery shelling, and the pickaxes recall machine-gun fire. As the survivors are brought up from the mines and lifted onto stretchers, it is hard not to think of the millions of wounded soldiers. In the final celebrations, even the dangers of the mines are linked with those of the trenches: We only have two enemies, says one of the rescuers at the ending celebration: “The gas, and the war.”
There is only one moment in the film that depicts World War I. One of the French miners, trapped between rockslides, is found by the German rescue team. The Germans emerge from the darkness of the mines, popping up from behind boulders. The French miner, seeing a troop of Germans in gas masks charging at him, suddenly lunges forward. In a dream-like sequence, the chamber of the mine becomes a heavily-shelled battlefield, the miners transform into soldiers charging. The sequence is especially effective because the sounds remain the same: only the visuals change. We are reminded just how little time has passed since the Great War: the landscape shown in the sequence could quite literally be just above them; the German rescuers could be snipers in the trenches. This creates a rather eerie effect. Like the French miner, the viewer is never quite certain how this will end – we are constantly reminded that, at any moment, old tensions could flare up and provoke another bloodshed.
The ending of Kameradschaft doesn’t quite embrace the message of hope – of comradeship – set up by the earlier sequences. After the celebrations have ended, there is one final scene: two guards stand, facing each other in the mines, one looking at the freshly-painted “Grenze 1919” and “Frontière 1919” signs. Two officers approach and trade official documents through the iron bars, and the German’s final words are “Ordnung muss sein” [“Order must be kept”], an unintentionally ominous proclamation for the coming events. Watching Kameradschaft nine decades later, there’s a certain sadness. The hopeful message of unity beyond national borders is hard to believe after Nazism. The film’s communist undertones, on the other hand – a brotherhood of workers united – are difficult to swallow after Stalinism. The film seems to give hope and take it away. At certain moments, it seems that maybe, just maybe, through individual contact with those we’re told are our enemies, we can put aside our differences and realise that in the end, we’re all miners. But it’s useful to return to the opening scene, with the French and German boy fighting in the dirt over a handful of marbles. The boys may be able to understand each other, but ultimately, they’re different: even at a young age, the border stands in their way, and even their friendly game ends in violence.