Germany/France (1931) Dir. G.W Pabst
The worst thing about the various wars that have taken place throughout history is how the innocent have been forced into a situation that pits them against their fellow man via false ideals of patriotism. This creates xenophobic distrust in nations where it needn’t exist, but luckily, some people are beyond such distorted myopia.
Following the end of World War I, a mine in the Lorraine-Saar region on the border between Germany and France has been split in two, with miners from both sides working in their respective halves. However, economic strife in Germany sees many miners try to gain work in the France to little avail. Some Germans feel there is lingering resentment towards them from the war which others chose to ignore.
Meanwhile, a fire breaks out in the French half of the mine which they try to contain by building a brick wall, but it rages out of control and when a gas lamp is lit, an explosion causes the mine roof to collapse. An elderly miner Jacques (Alex Bernard) is trapped in a back room with his grandson Georges (Pierre-Louis) and two Germans who broke through the wall to help them. With the French rescue team struggling to make any real headway, a group of German miners get permission to help with the rescue mission.
Comradeship is based on a real event – the Courrières mine disaster in 1906 which saw fatalities of 1,099 people including children from the coal dust explosion. In noting the poignancy of how this catastrophe brought two nations together only to see them on opposing sides of the battlefield a decade later, G.W Pabst decided to bring the setting forward to post-World War I, for greater resonance with modern audiences of 1931.
Politically, there is no heavy-handed angle here, as the central is about coming together and not to score points against one another. That this is a co-production with the French and is an early – if not one of the first bi-lingual films of the talkies era should denote how ultimately ineffectual the division stoked by the war was. Sadly, not everybody was onboard with the message, as the world would find out a few years later.
Opening the film is a demonstrative scene of two boys playing marbles on the border, arguing that each has won the game because the hole is right on the line. Their fathers, both border guards on each side come to break it up, neither taking sides as their only interest is keeping the peace. This can be taken in many ways, but I am sure Pabst was thinking this is exactly what needed solution wise was during the war.
By way of taking this motif a little further, three German miners visit a French pub which begins amusingly enough as they try to speak French only for the barmaid to reveal she speaks German. But then, one of them asks a French woman to dance and is refused: he thinks it is because he is German and almost causes a scene; it is in fact because she is tired and is about leave.
She is Francoise (Andrée Ducret) and becomes important later when the disaster occurs as both her boyfriend Emile (Georges Charli) and her brother Jean (Daniel Mendaille) are miners trapped in the rubble. It needs to be said that the nature of the story and the 90-minute run time means few character is any are given room to establish themselves, but Francoise comes close when she leads the worried wives and mothers in a storming the mine gates in protest of the lack of action.
News reaches the German side of the fire and most are shocked but show little concern except for Wittkopp (Ernst Busch), who tries to rally the troops. “They’re French” one colleague ones, “They’re miners, like us!” Wittkopp replies angrily. A fine line is drawn in depicting Wittkopp as an ideological do-gooder, erring on the right side of framing him as someone simply thinking on a humane level. This is enough to gain significant support for his mission.
I don’t know how early in the catalogue of disaster films this comes but I would reckon it must be among the first, and we have to credit Pabst for doing a stellar job with it. The mines were meticulously replicated sets astounding given their realism as real looking caves. Light is often sparse as is room to move, whilst the threat of collapsing ceilings is a permanent looming omen, the tension bolstered by the absence of a music score, rare for this era of cinema.
Not knowing the budget, I have to say this is an impressive looking film effect wise, and of course, it is all practical too. It’s not just the immaculately designed sets, the fire and explosions, the water rushing through the caves, and the collapsing ceilings show no signs at all of the usual studio construction of the time. Pabst and the crew make the audience believe this is the real deal in creating such a tense and claustrophobic sense of doom.
Visually ahead of its time it may be, the acting at times grounds it in the 1930s but keen eyes will also spot how the foundation of what we’ve come to know a neo-realism is found in the naturalistic ambience of the extras in the crowd scenes. The camerawork also eschews the usual intrusive style to feel more observant and objective to support this sensation.
Yet for all this nail biting drama, everything comes down to the last two scenes – one of Wittkopp’s passionate speech to encourage everyone to come together as humans and ignore nationality; the other being the coda, set post clean up of the mine. As I said earlier, it’s a shame certain people didn’t heed the message imparted in Comradeship otherwise, the world would be so much different. Heroism and humanity have never seemed as modest as they do here.