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Synopsis: In the Lorraine region on the French-German border, a gas explosion and series of tunnel collapses threatens the lives of French miners. A German rescue team, headed by Wittkopp, convinces the German mine director to allow them to conduct a rescue operation. In the meantime, a French miner descends an old stairway into the shaft in order to rescue his grandson on his own. The rescue mission ultimately becomes the expression of a common humanity that extends beyond national boundaries.
G. W. (Georg Wilhelm) Pabst's Kameradschaft (1931) is based on an actual event: the 1906 Courrieres mining disaster in northern France, among the worst industrial accidents in history. A coal dust explosion resulted in 1,060 deaths and German miners from the Westphalia region came to France to assist in the rescue effort. Pabst and his scriptwriters relocated the event to the present day (that is, in the aftermath of World War I) and to the French-German border, transforming the story into a message of pacifism and solidarity among workers. In that respect, the film may be seen as a follow-up to Pabst's previous film, the anti-war picture Westfront 1918 (1930), which shares largely the same production team and even some of the cast members.
In the opening scene of Kameradschaft, a French boy and a German boy quarrel over a game of marbles, each speaking in his own language, suggesting that war represents and infantile stage of human development. The shadow of war reappears at other points in the film, as well: a French mine worker, upon seeing a rescuer wearing a gas mask, involuntarily relives the trauma of the Great War. In order to reach their French counterparts, the German rescuers must break through an underground gate dating from 1919 and erected on the border between France and Germany. In the epilogue, cut from some versions, we see German and French guards rebuilding the border gate.
However, Kameradschaft is more than a mere message film; it is also one of the most technically accomplished works of the early sound cinema. For his first sound film, Westfront 1918, Pabst had decided to forgo the bulky soundproof booths that were commonly used in Hollywood in favor of a "blimp," or soundproof case that covers the camera itself. This enabled him to move the camera to a greater extent than most films of the era. In Kameradschaft, some of the more impressive instances of this include the episode where a German wife walks alongside a truck to say goodbye to her husband and the lengthy tracking shots over the smoking rubble of the collapsed mine shafts. The massive, authentically detailed reconstruction of a mine interior, designed by Erno Metzner and Karl Vollbrecht, still looks convincing today.
As befits the subject matter, Kameradschaft was a French-German co-production and thus was financed by Gaumont in addition to Nero-Film. The film's producer, Seymour Nebenzahl (also spelled Nebenzal) founded Nero-Film together with Austrian director Richard Oswald in 1924 as a competitor to UFA. Nero-Film's artistic peak was undoubtedly the later Twenties and early Thirties, when Nebenzahl produced a series of films for Pabst, among them Pandora's Box (1929), Westfront 1918, The Threepenny Opera (1931) and L'Atlantide (1932), as well as Fritz Lang's M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). After the rise of the Nazis, Nebenzahl moved to France where he produced films with Anatole Litvak and Max Ophuls during the 1930s. With the onset of war in Europe, the New York-born Nebenzahl returned to the U.S. and produced a number of films for PRC and United Artists, among them Douglas Sirk's first American features and the Maria Montez camp classic Siren of Atlantis (1949), a remake of L'Atlantide. Most notably, in 1951 he produced a remake of M for Columbia Pictures, directed by Joseph Losey and starring David Wayne.
Producer: Seymour Nebenzahl
Director: G. W. Pabst
Script: Ladislaus Vajda, Karl Otten, Peter Martin Lampel
Photography: Fritz Arno Wagner, Robert Baberske
Art Director: Erno Metzner, Karl Vollbrecht
Editor: Hans Oser, Marc Sorkin
Music: G. von Rigelius
Cast: Alexander Granach (Kaspers), Fritz Kampers (Wilderer), Daniel Mendaille (Jean Leclerc), Ernst Busch (Wittkopp), Elisabeth Wendt (his Wife), Gustav Puttjer (Kaplan), Oskar Hocker (Obersteiger), Helena Manson (Albert's Wife), Andree Ducret (Francoise Leclerc), Alex Bernard (Grandfather), Pierre Louis (Georges, his Grandson), Georges Tourreil (Engineer Vidal), Marcel Lesieur (Albert), Marguerite Debois (Jean's Mother), Fritz Wendhausen (German Mine Director), Max Holsboer (German Engineer).
by James Steffen