Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Kameradschaft is a rarity, a film that is genuinely inspirational based on a real life incident. Unlike many films of this sort, Kameradschaft makes its points honestly, without fanfare or bravado, and earns our emotional response by showing human courage and brotherhood in the midst of very dark times indeed. The German director, G. W. Pabst, made the film in 1931 in the heart of the great European depression and the picture looks as if it were shot on location in the purgatorial industrial wastelands of the Ruhrgebiet. The film-making has a documentary quality, leavened with more than a bit of heroic montage designed after the model of the films of Eisenstein and the other great Russian directors. Even on You-Tube, where I saw the film, with wobbly and indistinct picture quality, Kameradschaft is visually impressive and technically innovative -- the picture is an early sound film and demonstrates Pabst's ingenuity in using noises to carry meaning and dramatic impact: a classic example is the tapping sounds made by trapped minors on pipes and rails in the collapsing coal mine. The film is virtually without plot and has only a few characters, mostly unnamed -- as in the Soviet films, the hero of the picture is collective: in this case, German miners who swarm across a contested border in an attempt to rescue Frenchmen buried alive in a coal mine. The movie is short, about 85 minutes, and plays like a parable -- it has something of the fierce elan of one of Brecht's poems; it's the tip of a proletarian spear. At the outset of the film, some unemployed miners cross the border seeking work but are told to go home --"we don't have enough jobs for our own people," the guards at the mines tell the men. Some children playing marbles get into a quarrel and symbolically erect a border, daring their opponents to cross. Three German miners on a spree go into a French dance-hall and, on the basis of a misunderstanding, almost get into a brawl with their French counterparts. In an extraordinary tracking shot, we see the French mine where a fire has been burning, a mass of angular wreckage oozing flame and smoke -- the fire has been burning for weeks, gnawing through walls, and clearly symbolizes the tensions at the border between the French and Germans. Walls erected in the French mine to seal off flammable gas shatter and immense gouts of roaring flame pour through the galleries, burning miners alive and shattering the supports so that the mine collapses (and floods at the same time). All of this is filmed with maximum intensity and the scenes of the fire in the mine have enormous, infernal authority. An old man climbs down a vertical shaft to rescue his grandson -- this is a surreal episode showing the old miner descending an interminable wall laced with industrial struts and pipes. He finds his grandson half-drowned in shaft 2000 feet below the ground. On the surface, German miners form rescue teams and cross the border in huge trucks in an attempt to save the French trapped in the fiery hell of the mine. Everyone wears gas masks and the appearance of the Germans in the collapsing mineshafts triggers flashbacks to the warfare on the Western Front. Deep in the German mine, the three miners who were expelled from the French dance-hall, breach the wall at the border separating the German from the French mine-shafts and try to rescue the old man and his son. They get trapped in an underground chamber where huge dray horses look down on them solemnly. Tapping at the metal pipes, the trapped men call for help and, ultimately, are rescued. In a final sequence that is prophetically cynical, the officials of both nations meet underground where the border between the two mines was breached, weld bars into the opening, and, then, solemnly exchange official documents certifying that the border has been closed once more to the satisfaction of the officials of both nations. Pabst was working for the French Gaumont studios when the film was made and it is, in fact, a German and French co-production, an example of cross-border cooperation made only 12 years after the Great War -- and nine years before the beginning of the second Great War. I will have to search for this film in a form that is optically better than the You-Tube version that I watched. But there is no doubt that this is an important film -- the street scenes with mourning women look like the woodcuts of Kaethe Kollwitz and the looming greyindustrial landscapes have a somber intensity and the work in the mines, before the explosion, is a cubist nightmare of laborers in tiny slanting cells hacking at black walls. Kameradschaft is the German word for "comradeship."