Kameraschaft (1931)

“This damned drudgery will kill us all.”

Kameradschaft or Comradeship (AKA La Tragedie de la Mine) from G.W Pabst is an amazing, gripping and stirring film that follows the efforts to rescue French miners trapped 2000 feet underground. With its theme that comradeship transcends borders and nationalities, Pabst set the film in post WWI, but it’s loosely based on the real life mining disaster at Courrieres in 1906.

The mine straddles the Franco-German border, and the French miners work their side, and the Germans work the German side. When the film begins, German miners try to find work over on the French side but they are turned away. In these the post WWI years, strong sentiment still exists between both sides–particularly since some of these men fought on opposite sides just a few years previously. These hostilities and resentments surface at a local tavern one evening. The two communities don’t mix well, and they tend to stick with their own countrymen.

The early parts of the film establish various characters and story threads, and then these characters become identifiable in the chaos of the mining disaster. There’s a romance brewing between Francoise (Andree Duchret) and miner Emile (Georges Charlia), the best friend of her brother, Jean (Daniel Mendaille). Francoise hates the mining life, and after leaving the community, she now lives and works in Paris. She tries to get her widowed mother to move to Paris too, but the mother replies: “many have gone to Paris. They earn more money but not enough to pay the rent.”

Another story thread involves George (Pierre-Louis), the young grandson of a former miner. The grandfather sends the lad underground with mixed emotions–on the one hand there’s a grim acceptance: “each gets his turn.” But on the other hand, the grandfather has misgivings and asks Emile and Jean to keep an eye on George.

When an explosion rips through the French side of the mine and huge columns of smoke bilge forth from the mineshaft, the entire community rushes to the pit for news. The wives, mothers and children of the trapped miners are locked out of the area, and the gates are policed to ensure they don’t get past. The palatable anguish of the families pours from the frustrated, desperate crowd, and they must wait beyond the gates while the owner of the mine is let through. These scenes reiterate not only the hierarchy of the owners, the management, and the workers but also underscore the adversarial relationship between these groups of people. There’s one moment when the police contemplate calling in the troops on the crowd of distraught mining families.

When news of the mining disaster reaches the German miners, they rally together to assist in the rescue efforts. A great deal of the film follows the rescue attempts as the German rescue crew search for signs of survivors. In one brilliant sequence, trapped French miners tap to alert the rescuers of their whereabouts, and the film flashes back to scenes in WWI trenches; the frantic tapping of the trapped French miners morphs into rapid machine gun fire, and a German miner experiences the horror of the trenches once again.

There’s a lesson here in comradeship, of course. Some of the Germans reject the idea of risking their lives to save the French miners with a savage irony–after all just a few years have passed since a bloody shooting party raged between both countries, but as one German miner points out, “why should we mind the generals. A miner’s a miner.” In another scene, German miners sit down and eat while on a break, and they cannot carry on knowing that men are dying. Nationality and old resentments are cast aside as the miners embrace the notion of comradeship.

The owners and the management are all more interested in keeping the mine a viable operation and saving men is not the priority. The miners are quite aware of this, and the knowledge that they are expendable helps spur them in the search for their comrades. The final scenes include speeches by both French and German miners:

“Regardless of whether we’re French or German, we’re all workers, and a miner is a miner. But why do we only stick together when it gets tough? Should we sit idly by until they’ve stirred us up so we shoot each other down in a war?

The coal belongs to everyone whether we dig it up on this side or the other, and if they can’t reach an agreement at the top, we’ll stick together because we belong together.”

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for the horses trapped in the mines, and while the film acknowledges their usefulness and the human reliance on horses, at no point is rescuing the horses even considered–neither is their abandonment in the mines mentioned. In French and German with subtitles.

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Filed under German, Political/social films, Silent

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