Kameradschaft: War Is Over (If You Want It)

On Film / Essays — Feb 1, 2018

G. W. Pabst’s fourteenth movie, Kameradschaft (1931), is an antiwar film set in peacetime. It is also in every outward particular a labor movie, although it is content to promote solidarity among workers of all nations, not concerning itself with the divide between labor and capital for longer than a fleeting detail here and there. It was inspired by a text written by Karl Otten as a film story idea, based on the Courrières mine disaster of 1906, when a powder explosion—perhaps caused by methane ignited by the flame of a miner’s lantern—left 1,099 dead, making it the worst such disaster in European history and the second worst worldwide. The salient point for Pabst was that, although the incident had occurred in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, far from any border (the closest one would have been with Belgium), German rescue units came from Westphalia to assist in recovery efforts.

The imperiled mine here—called Thibault, in an unnamed village—is located in Lorraine, no more than a couple of miles from the border of the Saar region of Germany, on the other side of which another, connected mine is located. The action unrolls in the present, a little over a decade after the Versailles conference that ended World War I. The miners and villagers on both sides are visually and perhaps culturally indistinguishable, although they do not speak each other’s languages and hew to tribal identities hardened by war and formalized by two sets of customs gates. The picture begins with a symbolic scene showing two kids, sons of customs officials from the opposite sides, playing marbles. They both declare victory, whereupon the German kid angrily draws a border with his foot, and then their fathers have to break up the tussle. The parallels continue, not the least of them being that two negatives of Kameradschaft were produced, one for Germany and one for France (the one used for this restoration is the German one, although, fittingly, the epilogue had to be supplied from a print of the French).

With equanimity, the picture distributes its major characters between the two nations, although it reserves its strongest allegiance for a seriocomic trio of German miners: Kasper (Alexander Granach, who had a major role in Nosferatu and eventually migrated to Hollywood—he was Jewish—where he appeared in, among other things, Ninotchka) is mustachioed, impulsive, barrel-chested, low to the ground. Wilderer (Fritz Kampers, who played the Bavarian in Pabst’s 1930 film Westfront 1918) is tall, broad, jovial, and comically conceited. Kaplan (Gustav Püttjer) is bald, bespectacled, silent, turtlelike, exceptionally agile. Near the beginning, we see the tribal divisions at play as the three visit a dance hall on the French side. You imagine that the hall, with its floral motif and its brass band playing dance tunes that could easily double as marches, is probably identical to its counterparts across the border. Nevertheless, Wilderer mangles an invitation to dance and then decides the woman has refused not because she is tired but because he is German. Suddenly, the tension ratchets up all over the room. The music stops. Every male is standing, on alert. Our three miners pick themselves up and leave. Wilderer repeats a popular slogan cited three years earlier by Walter Benjamin in One-Way Street: “Germans, drink German beer!”

The national tensions are mirrored by the mines on either side of the border. The French have more jobs but can’t sell much of their coal; the Germans make futile daily trips to the border to ask for jobs. On the other hand, the two mines are actually one big one, artificially sectioned off by a wall in the middle. So when the worst happens and fire breaks out on the French side, it at least symbolically becomes a disaster for both nationalities, an idea that is not lost on the German miner Wittkopp, who organizes a rescue party from his side. He is played by Ernst Busch, the musical narrator of Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera (also 1931) and a celebrated singer who, over a nearly sixty-year career, recorded songs by Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky, and Hanns Eisler, as well as ones from the Spanish Civil War. Busch was a well-known (and lifelong) Communist, so his part in the movie can be taken as Pabst’s nod in the direction of social struggle.

It is nearly the only such acknowledgment in the picture—rather remarkably for the period—and it’s hard to know whether to ascribe the motive for this to Pabst’s caution or to an overall lack of depth. Nevertheless, the period of the film’s making, as distinct from its setting, is palpable throughout. When in the morning the French town arises and heads off to work, as one, on foot and bicycle, the parade of faces puts you in mind of any number of photographs by August Sander, Brassaï, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange. They flit by in streams, and yet each is momentarily inscribed on our field of vision; they are what we have come to see as the faces of labor: thin, dignified, guarded, resigned, the impassive playthings of massive forces beyond their ken (as if we weren’t, with our consumer individuality). Later, when news of the fire has spread—by the massive plume of smoke visible for many miles—there is a frenzied replay of the morning’s work march; a huge crowd composed mostly of women clusters at the colliery gates, crushing the guards against them. Then the crowd’s agitated faces are suddenly no longer reminiscent of the placid ones of still portraiture—they are faces from silent film: King Vidor’s, Sergei Eisenstein’s, Fritz Lang’s, perhaps especially Vsevolod Pudovkin’s, with his eye for the body language of anguished crowds. The faces are cinematic because they, and not just the bodies to which they belong, are in motion; they are silent-film faces because of the way they are lit, each of them a full moon—this is not a faceless mob, unlike the atmospherically lit crowds in many later movies.

The magnificent cinematography, like that in Pabst’s Westfront 1918—formally and thematically this film’s counterpart—is the work of Fritz Arno Wagner, also responsible for four other films by Pabst, including the luminous The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927). He also shot Fritz Lang’s Destiny, Spies, M, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and the film he made right after it, Burning Soil. He was one of the principal architects of the Ufa style in the twenties and of cinematic expressionism in general, although Pabst, the filmmaker most associated with the New Objectivity movement in German art, pressed him into the service of what could be termed subjective realism. What the British critic Paul Rotha wrote about Jeanne Ney can serve just as well for Kameradschaft, or for Westfront 1918: “Wagner’s camera nosed into the corners and ran with the players . . . Every curve, every angle, every approach of the lens was controlled by the material that it photographed for the expression of mood.” The majority of Kameradschaft takes place down in the mine, which before the disaster is airless, labyrinthine, illuminated only by streaks of light from above; afterward, it is a mess of buckled walls, pools of water, falling timbers, cascades of dirt, bodies everywhere. Wagner’s camera fluidly darts down the corridors and around the obstructions, palpably in contact with the soil and seemingly in danger at all times. The mine sets are alarmingly effective—and they were, in fact, sets, built from scratch by Ernő Metzner, who noted, according to the film historian Siegfried Kracauer, that “candid shots of a real mining disaster would scarcely have produced a convincing impression of it. ‘In this instance nature could not be used as a model for the studio.’”

The film’s other most redoubtable set was, however, an actual location: at the head of the German mine is a vast hall where miners attach their clothes to chains, which they pulley up to the distant ceiling and then lock before positioning themselves under the hundreds of showerheads. “The audience is let into one of the arcana of everyday life,” writes Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler (1947). There is a documentary quality to Kameradschaft that is inevitably more visible the further in time the film is removed from the viewer. There are those faces, of course—which clearly belong to locally recruited extras—and the stone-and-brick prospects of both villages and their respective collieries, and the sight of trucks negotiating the narrow streets, which might have been laid out in the Middle Ages. Pabst enumerates the hand tools and pneumatic drills miners used then; and the pit ponies in their underground stables, treated as if they were tools; and the equipment, primitive to our eyes, employed in the rescue mission. The Germans’ looks more up-to-date, or at least better-designed, but then again the insect-eye lenses of Wittkopp’s goggles provoke a full-on flashback to the war in the mind of the French miner he is attempting to rescue, who, after Pabst takes us into the trenches for a few frenzied seconds, tries to fight back.

But there are clear limits to Pabst’s documentation. Kameradschaft, besides evading the many critical socio­economic issues at play in its subject, also looks very different from German left-wing movies of the time, such as Phil Jutzi’s Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness (1929) and Slatan Dudow’s Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? (1932)—the latter in particular, with its newsreel vérité style. Pabst’s movie is deliberately composed, an aesthetic object; it also has some money behind it. Even so, its staging can be revealing. When Wittkopp conceives his idea, he has to ask permission from the foreman, who in turn must consult the director of the mine. The negotiation could not be delineated more graphically: the director stands at the top of a broad flight of stairs, the foreman on a landing below, the volunteers clustered at the bottom of another flight with Wittkopp just a step or two higher. The shot is, naturally, taken from above.

According to Kracauer, the movie was lavishly praised by the critics but ignored by the masses; in the working-class Berlin district of Neukölln, it played to empty rooms. Given the time, it is not hard to see why: pacifism and internationalism were by then pale trivialities in the light of constant clashes between workers and management and between left and right—the Nazis, not yet having achieved electoral dominance, were throwing their energies into street fighting. To people then, Kameradschaft might have seemed not unlike what a crowd-evoking feel-good soft-drink commercial looks like today. It is certainly not short on sentiment, of the most pandering sort. And yet it fails to dissolve into treacle because the performances are so strong, the emotions so primal, the settings so austere. It is also a masterpiece of editing—the way it conveys simultaneity, seemingly accounts for the movements of an entire town, paces its set pieces along a continuum of gradually increasing tension. It flies along breathlessly, as gripping as any action picture.