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Cinema Revisited: Pabst's 1931 "Kameradschaft"
posted on 2-May-2000 by mr. stein
Kameradschaft (1931) is an interesting classic German film made at a very sensitive point in Western European history, targeting French/German tensions temporally situated directly between World Wars I & II. The director, G.W. Pabst, seem to sense this and what results is ambiguous: is the content of the film simple exploitation or an astute realization? A bit of both perhaps, and a lot of captivating cinema in between.
G.W. Pabst's beautiful German film is loosely based on a historical reality that occurred not long after World War I; in a French mine hundreds of miners are cut off from the surface, trapped in a burning, poisonous, self-created cavern of darkness. Understaffed, underequipped, and unprepared to rescue their countrymen below, the French must accept the aid of the neighboring German mine. Pabst's film both adds to and diminishes the natural drama of such a plot setup: By emphasizing the claustrophobia of the mines with innovative cinematography Kameradschaft instills a sense of mortal urgency (albeit somewhat lightweight in appearance to our hardened late-20th century mentality; we are used to much more trauma than what this 1931 cinema can provide). Yet while Pabst creates a believable atmosphere of danger and hopelessness, it offers a distracting French romance and a strange trio of almost humorous German heroes--a mindlessly bold and brave set of friends who sneak into the French mines through a long forgotten underground connection. These three are unfortunately constituents of the main character list, and though the intent of the film maker is that these Germans be the selfless champions of humankind, they come off more as headstrong, happenchance saviors. Instead, it is the less focused characters who capture the viewer's cognition: the veteran elder miner who risks his fragile life to resurrect a too-young grandson, the selfless German miners who brazenly cross the French border and demand to be allowed to save their fellow men.
 
The message of Kameradschaft is simple and obvious: "humankind" connects beyond language, beyond nationality, and insists that foreign enemies come together to save each other from themselves. This point is best illustrated in what I take to be the film's essential scene: gas-masked German rescuers meet up with their mirror image in the French rescuers, and the two foreign leaders grasp gloved hands in "kameradschaft." Though the heavy gear and gas-masks prevent the two from seeing each other's face, and though the oxygen tubes and apparatuses restrict their voices so that nothing is articulated, the message is clear: the nationality identified by face does not matter when masked by mortal danger; the inability to communicate with a common tongue is unimportant when man is bound by humanity. This effect, I think, is neither cliche nor naive, and reverberates beyond simple issues of nationality into the contemporary social matters of our post-industrial, fragmented societies.
 
Though Kameradschaft lacks the elaborate sets, the adrenaline-urging special effects, and the more subtle aspects of cinematic craft that I have come to expect from film art, the intentions are made reality thanks to Pabst's competent directing and the film's sometimes extraordinary cinematography. Though the plot is occasionally trivial or unnecessary, the film's heart lies in the rescue sequences several hundred meters under the ground, and the film's soul lies in Pabst's idealistic presentation of the best of humanity.

 
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