In 1958 film critics and historians held a referendum in Brussels on the thirty greatest films ever made. Kameradschaft ended up as film number twenty-six on the list, ranked with films such as The Rules of the Game and Citizen Kane. I don’t know if this film would make a similar list today, but I have to say that half a century after that poll, Kameradschaft still stands out as one of the most remarkable films ever made.

The director, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, had an unusual career which matched the unusual circumstances of his life. After beginning as a student of engineering and architecture in Germany, he discovered his vocation for the arts and began working in amateur theater companies. He was still very young when he decided to leave for the United States and develop his skills as a writer, playwright and performer. Pabst intended to stay in the United States, but in late 1913 he went to France on a temporary assignment; he was there in 1914 when the First World War broke out.

He was in France. He was a German. He was arrested. He stayed in jail for a couple of years.  During these years he had the opportunity to work at what he considered his vocation — theater. He managed to stage and perform in some plays. It was only in the late teens and early twenties that cinema came into his life.

Pabst started making films in Germany, as soon as he was able to get to there, and he began with some of the greatest silent films ever made. For example, The Joyless Street, made in 1925, displayed the extraordinary talent of Greta Garbo. Between 1925 and 1930 Pabst gave us some of the most remarkable accomplishments of the art of silent film. Back in France, he had made another extraordinary movie, a pacifist film called Westfront 1918, and he was shuttling between France and Germany when he made Kameradschaft. At the time when Hitler came to power in 1933, Pabst again happened to be in France.

Pabst came back to the United States in 1933 and made a couple of films, again thinking that his career was going to develop here. It didn’t work out. He went back to Europe and made more films in France. But then, when the Nazi regime really started to reveal the ultimate goals of the Third Reich, he suddenly and unpredictably crossed the border between France and Switzerland and returned to Germany. He not only went back to Germany but made two or three films under the Nazi regime. Then, shortly after war ended, he started making films with strong political content, one of which is a remarkable indictment of anti-Semitic policy under the Third Reich.

Pabst stopped making films after 1956 following a mild heart attack, but there was a stigma on his career. People didn’t quite know what to make of him. Was he a left-wing filmmaker? But how could a left-wing filmmaker have made films for the Nazi regime? Even today critics don’t quite know how to categorize his ideological standing. Some argue that Pabst really didn’t have much ideology, that he was primarily a great stylist. But in my opinion Kameradschaft proves that Pabst had indeed a rather complex, if often contradictory, political consciousness. Politics were important for his life, but one really can’t assign him to a niche and give him an ideological label, a political definition.

Pabst made Kameradschaft shortly after Westfront 1918, a great pacifist film.  Kameradschaft exalts comradeship between miners from France and Germany. On face value Kameradschaft can be seen as a celebration of class struggle and, again, a severe critique of nationalism. However, beneath the surface of this celebration Pabst is asking some quite compelling questions.

The story is a drama about miners, inspired by an actual tragedy that occurred in Courrières, France. In 1906, a fire suddenly erupted in a mine, killing over 1200 people. The few survivors were saved thanks to the intervention of some fellow miners from the state of Westphalia in Germany. Pabst shifted this episode from 1906 to 1919, the year after the end of World War One, the time of the Versailles Treaty and the establishment of the new border between France and Germany, a time when French and Germans hated each other more than ever.

The story is a typical tragedy and rescue story. There is a fire in the mine, French miners are trapped inside, and German miners risk their lives to save their comrades. This simple story, a story which in any other film would probably deliver a very plain political message, is here articulated with a variety of digressions and innuendos.

For example, at the very beginning of the film you see two kids shooting marbles right by the borderline between France and Germany: one boy is French, the other is German, and they start fighting with each other. The camera then shifts to the frontier between France and Germany and you clearly see that the relationship between France and Germany is far from cordial.  Scenes of life among the miners in France make it obvious that after World War I there are still very hard feelings between French and Germans. But then, as soon as the tragedy erupts, the concept of “nation,” this border artificially created by the Versailles Treaty, becomes nothing but a barrier, an obstacle which the miners are going to demolish, to destroy with their private will. So they go and save the French miners.

But having said this, there are disturbing details to be considered. For example, when the German miners go down in the mine there is another borderline there. In the middle of a tunnel is a sign saying “Border 1919,” a sign that wasn’t put up by any political authority, a sign that had been placed by some worker underground. The German miners ignore this sign and go to the rescue of the French miners. But still, the sign is there.

Near the end of the film, which is a traditional happy ending, the two leaders of the miners, one French and one German, praise each other and celebrate the collaboration between French and German miners. However, at the very end of the film, an ending which unfortunately has been eliminated from most prints, you see the same workers intent on building another borderline underground, making sure that the division between France and Germany is re-established. So why is Pabst telling us this? What is his message? Does he mean to tell us that class divisions and national divisions are strictly related? Or does he mean that in fact what the German miners are struggling against is not only political divisions but also the challenges of nature? Because nature is also a protagonist of this film.

Kameradschaft was shot mostly in the studio, though it looks so real that the film was hailed as one of the best fictional documentaries ever made. It was a very high-budget film, and there are only a few shots taken in actual locations — the outdoor shots, taken outside the mine, are of real mining locations.

To make the political content of the film even more complicated, there is the linguistic factor. At the beginning of the sound period, when recording techniques were not as sophisticated as they are today, films were not dubbed. They were not subtitled. If a film was a co-production between France and Germany, a scene would be shot with French actors and then the same scene would be shot again with German actors. So the same film was basically shot twice. Here, for the first time, a filmmaker, a European, decided to shoot a film in a combined bilingual version: the dialogue in Kameradschaft is in both French and German, and whenever German and French characters address each other, they don’t understand what is said. They don’t understand each other, but they do manage to help each other. And at the end of the film, the French miners’ leader says, “Well, I don’t know what my German colleague said, but I understand very well what he meant and I agree with him.”

Imagine an audience in 1933 watching this film. French people would not understand a word of what the German actors said. German audiences would not understand what the French actors said. And this trouble in understanding each other is, in my opinion, part of the political message of the film. It is not enough to say that, “Well, the message is that language doesn’t matter, that the barriers of language can be broken as easily as a frontier.”  Because of the way Pabst stresses these linguistic differences, I believe he meant to say something more complex — that whatever happened, despite this generous act of solidarity, these barriers are there and they cannot be eliminated overnight. The economic system behind the mining industry is only part of the reason for the conflict. Linguistic barriers come from a distant past; they cannot be overcome rapidly. It will take centuries, if not longer, for them to disappear.

The print we are screening is not the best in existence, although it should be good enough to appreciate the film. What’s interesting is that this print was made for American audiences and was therefore subtitled. So you have dialogue in German and French, and subtitles in English. But the subtitles, because of the quality of the print, are almost invisible. When they are visible, they are so short that you don’t have time to read them. So you will have to do more or less what the German and French miners in the film are trying to do: figure out what their fellows are saying and ultimately understand what they are doing while ignoring the language.  You’ll end up ignoring the subtitles because there is really nothing essential to be understood from them.

Accordingly, dialogue does not have great importance in this film. Instead, sound and noise are very important. Most of the crucial moments in the film are determined by sound. In fact, the climactic sequence, the resolution of the drama unfolding underground, depends on sound. It is thanks to sound that some of the miners are able to save their own lives, and it is thanks to sound that German miners save their French colleagues.

Finally, I should say something about the sexual politics of the film. Besides the border between France and Germany, and besides the borders between classes and languages, there is also a very, very sharp division between genders. Obviously mining work is identified with male workers, but in this film the division between male and female characters is really striking. When it is learned that a tragedy is unfolding underground, all the women try to enter the mining camp and are prevented from doing so by the authorities. So all the drama is actually played out by males, while females are relegated to the role of spectators. When one of the protagonists considers going into the mine to rescue his comrades, his fiancée threatens to leave him; and when he decides to go, she leaves. While this may be a melodramatic stratagem, if you look at the clearly divided way in which Pabst treats the relationship between genders, I think it suggests the existence of another frontier in the human condition, of another insurmountable boundary between the sexes.

This introduction was presented by Paolo Cherchi Usai at a screening of Kameradschaft on 2 November 2001.

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About Paolo Cherchi Usai

Paolo Cherchi Usai is Senior Curator of the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House (Rochester, New York). Co-founder of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, he is also Director of the Eastman House’s L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation; Curator Emeritus of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia; and resident Curator of the Telluride Film Festival.