Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.
The critic Liam O'Leary justly states that:
Pabst was enmeshed in the happenings of his times, which ultimately engulfed him. He is the chronicler of the churning maelstrom of social dreams and living neuroses, and it is this perception of his time which raises him above many of his contemporary filmmakers. (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers)
G.W. Pabst (1885-1967) born in Bohemia, studied engineering in Vienna, then Academy of Decorative Arts 1904-6. Begins acting career appearing in Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, USA. Returns to Europe in 1914 to recruit more actors but is interned in France as an enemy alien. Imprisoned as POW in camp in Brest 1914-18, organises theatre group in camp. After war active in Expressionist theatre in Vienna and Prague. Joins film production company in 1922. With Heinrich Mann, Erwin Piscator, Karl Freund forms left-wing Volksverband für Filmkunst (Popular Association for Film Art) in 1928. When Hitler comes to power in 1933 chooses to remain in France, invited to work in Hollywood, returns to France in 1935, offered French citizenship but refuses because he fears son will be conscripted into French army. Decides to emigrate to USA so returns briefly to Austria to collect his effects, falls ill and is trapped in Austria after outbreak of war. Controversial decision to make historical films under Nazis 1941-44. Continued to make films after war in Austria and Italy.
Famous films: hard-hitting anti-war film "Westfront 1918" (1930); film based on Brecht's satire of capitalist society "The Threepenny Opera" (1931); plea for international cooperation between France and Germany "Comradeship" (1931).
Reflects the pervasive left-wing political views of the cultural elite of Weimar Republic. High point of German socialist realism. Made at the time of the electoral successes of the Nazi Party, street violence between communist and Nazi gangs, seeming inevitability of coming to power of Hitler. What role could left-wing pleas for international solidarity have in this context? Irony of film's ending.
Film based upon a real mining disaster which occurred before WW1 in Courrières. Set in coal-mining region on border between France and Germany after signing of Versailles Treaty, occupation of Ruhr, hyper inflation. Vein of coal cuts across political border with frontier post above and iron fence and brick wall underground to separate French and German miners. Contrasts full employment, prosperity and national chauvinism of French with unemployment, inflation and depression on German side. This could locate film in occupation of Ruhr by French, hyper inflation of 1923-24 or great depression 1929. Fire and gas explosion on French side of mine traps miners. Group of German miners decide to go to rescue of French comrades (hence title of film), break through frontier post in truck, surprise French townspeople who cry "Les Allemands. Ce n'est pas possible" (The Germans. It isn't possible!), smash fence and brick wall underground. Follow story through eyes of Françoise and her lover, old man and his grandson, the three German friends. After rescue French and German miners celebrate their friendship and overcoming of hostility between the two nationalities. Message of Pabst is expressed by one of the workers: "Why must we cooperate only at times of disaster. Why not every day?" Can socialist solidarity overcome national chauvinism and its by product or war?
The perceptive historian of German cinema, Siegfried Krakauer, (writing in 1947) criticises Pabst and the other socialists of the Weimar Republic for not appreciating the true significance of the rise of the Nazis and their appeal to the impoverished middle class and working class, and thus the inevitable ineffectiveness of socialist films like "Kameradschaft".
Under the Republic, the German socialists, especially the Social Democrats, proved increasingly unable to grasp the significance of what happened around them. Misguided by conventionalized Marxist concepts, they overlooked the importance of the middle class as well as the ramified mental roots of the existing national aspirations. They had no psychological insight; it never occurred to them that their simplistic frame of reference was inadequate to explain the turn of the petty-bourgeoisie towards the right or the attraction the Nazi creed exerted on German youth. Pabst adopted the socialist ideas of class solidarity and pacifism at a time when these ideas had degenerated into anaemic abstractions and as a consequence the Social Democrats could not be expected to cope with the actual situation. In fact, as if the dead weight of an outworn ideology had exhausted them, the Social Democrats watched the Nazi movement grow and grow without stirring from their apathy. COMRADESHIP reflects this exhaustion...
The film was praised by reviewers and shunned by the public. In Neukölln, one of Berlin's proletarian quarters, it ran before empty seats, while some dull comedy in the immediate neighbourhood attracted huge crowds. Nothing could be more symptomatic of the workers' inertia. (From Caligari to Hitler, p. 242).
1. Opening shot of a French and a German boy fighting over game of marbles - is antagonism and rivalry between individuals (and nations) a result of human nature or socialisation?
2. Problem of communication French horse doesn't understand German commands. Miners communicate by banging on a pipe. Bilingualism of film (French appears in italic subtitles, the rest is in German) could suggest internationalism or mutual incomprehension. Pious statements of comradeship of French and German workers at end of film mutually incomprehensible. Antagonism between 3 German workers and French miners in French dance hall one Saturday night. German worker misunderstands Françoise's refusal to dance with him. F is tired and already has a boy friend. Germans take it as an national insult - "France has offended me." Trapped miner is able to communicate by banging on pipe.
3. Realism of exterior and interior of mine - all constructed in studio. No music but captures sound of mine - sound of chains, metal on metal, lifts. Compare Zola's novel of French mine Germinal.
4. Memories of the war haunt the miners. Sound of German voice of rescuer reminds French miner of German soldier wearing a gas mask. Hallucinates and then attacks him hysterically.
5. Crowd scenes reminiscent of Soviet socialist realist films (Eisenstein and Pudovkin) - women storming front gate of mine, shower and change room on German side of mine).
6. Confrontation of German workers and mine owners. Workers wish to go to aid of their comrades across border. Mine owners (capitalists) resist. Scene shot on staircase with miners in subordinate position of bottom step and director of mine above them on landing. Pabst associates capitalism and nationalism; socialism and international comradeship. Ignores willingness of socialists to go to war in August 1914, the fact that Nazism is a virulent combination of "nationalism" and "socialism."
7. Examples of Pabst's socialist and pacifist views. German miner says "this bloody slavery will kill us all in the end." Spokesmen of two groups of miners declare the socialist fraternity of all workers and insist on need for unity between France and Germany. Declare coal belongs to all. If bosses can't agree on need for peace then we the workers can. Unintentionally funny scene of excessively long handshake in mine between a French and German worker. The two main enemies of the mine workers are gas (i.e. working in the mine) and war (capitalism and nationalism).
8. Irony of ending in other editions of the film. As miners celebrate comradeship iron fence and brick wall underground are rebuilt and French and German officials exchange diplomatic protocols ratifying reestablishment of frontier according to provisions of Versailles Treaty.
9. Symbol of the fence which separates French and German side of the mine (national borders), women storming the gate of the mine to find out about the husbands trapped below (separation of working class from private property of mine), gate which encloses mine lift. Walls and frontiers as barriers to peace, prosperity, and mutual understanding.