FILM REVIEW: Deconstructing Nationalism, Saving Humanity: G.W. Pabst’s “Kameradschaft” (1931)

David Shasha

Posted Jan 5, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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FILM REVIEW: Deconstructing Nationalism, Saving Humanity: G.W. Pabst’s “Kameradschaft” (Germany, 1931)

by David Shasha

The final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s classic anti-War epic “Paths of Glory” is a strange moment in movie history that is often discussed.  After the tragic execution of three men from a French brigade that failed to mount a suicidal campaign that would have ensured the deaths of all its members, the remnant of that brigade goes to a pub to have a drink and blow off some steam. 

While they are swilling down their beers, a young and beautiful female German prisoner (played by the future Mrs. Kubrick, Susanne Christiane) is brought to the stage to sing to the crowd.  Clearly uncomfortable among the French troops, the young woman’s German ballad speaks to the men in a foreign language that stirs their emotions and brings tears to their eyes, even as they in all likelihood do not understand its lyrics.  The young woman is a vulnerable prisoner who has been treated cavalierly in a world where human beings are identified by their national identity and not who they are as people. 

Her song breaks the nationalistic idyll that enraptures the soldiers and which informs their mission.

The point Kubrick drives into the audience is that nations and languages are mere trifles next to the deep wells of our common humanity.

The reverberations of the First World War echo in history as mankind continues to beat the tribal drums of nations and nationalism.  Men in that war went out to battle in the name of their flags, in the name of empire and in the name of the greed that informs the basest morality in men.

We often ignore the most profound visions of artists and thinkers and mark them as some form of romantic and irrational folly.  No more could this idea be truer than in our cultural forgetting of “Kameradschaft,” the great masterwork of G.W. Pabst, the seminal German filmmaker whose “Threepenny Opera” and “Pandora’s Box” continue to remain movie classics and mandatory viewing for film students.

Pabst directed this extraordinary film (in English, Comradeship) the same year that he did “Threepenny Opera” and yet the more visionary work is the one that has been consigned to the margins of film history.

“Kameradschaft” is one of a small group of classic films that portray miners and the dangers of their trade.  In Hollywood the two great mining epics, Michael Curtiz’s “Black Fury” and John Ford’s “How Green was my Valley,” both dealt with the social aspects of the trade; each of the films deals with labor struggles, unions and strikes and the way these things affected the everyday lives of mineworkers and their families.  These films are justifiably lauded for their progressive stance regarding the working classes and the difficulties that workers have faced in a world that often keeps them hidden and marginalized.

“Kameradschaft” is a film that takes the miners and brings them into the geopolitical world of nationalist politics and war.  Placing the film in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Pabst shows us the profound ways in which the Germans and French mistrusted one another.  The Germans having been defeated, we see their people humbled and stigmatized by the French.

The film metaphorically begins with the presentation of a game of marbles between two children who both claim victory and refuse to share the marbles; each claiming absolute victory in the game.  Immediately, the film shifts perspective and we see a group of unemployed German men trying to cross the border into France to look for work.  The men are rebuffed and not permitted to cross over as the French do not have enough jobs for their own people and will not let Germans in.

We then learn that there are two mines on either side of the French-German border that are connected 2,000 feet underground.  The German miners are in constant fear that the French mine which is constantly burning flames will infest their own mine with noxious gas.  There is a basic and elemental distrust between the peoples that encourages the endless chatter on both sides, one against the other.

One evening three of the German miners go to a French dancehall for some entertainment and when one of them asks a young French girl for a dance and is rebuffed, the tensions continue to intensify.

Pabst uses the first moments of the film to firmly establish the idea that nationalism and the toxic film of war has diminished the ability of these human beings to see each another as equals.  There is the mistrust engendered by the language gap as well as the cultural divisions that have been generated by the masks of modern nationalism.

After these initial sequences, a massive collapse occurs in the French mine.  Harried and frenzied wives and mothers of the miners run to the mine to discover the fate of their loved ones.  When word of the mine collapse passes over the German side, a lone German miner named Witkopp rises up to proclaim his solidarity with his French brethren who are now trapped mere feet away from the German mine.  Witkopp forcefully argues to his compatriots as well as to his superiors that it is incumbent upon the German miners to help their French counterparts in spite of the hatred that exists between the countries.

For the first time, the two halves of the mine - on either side of a hostile and impenetrable border - have been fused into one.  The oceanic tides of national identity have now been put into question as the Germans begin to prepare their gear for the rescue and go aboveground to help save their comrades.

The final third of the film is an anguished presentation of the rescue in the wake of the great tragedy that has occurred.  It shows a group of men who selflessly and with no regard to their own safety make the trip down the collapsed mine to see if they can bring anyone back alive.  In the midst of their heroism, three of the men who stayed behind (not very coincidentally, these are the three that went to the French dancehall at the beginning of the movie) decide to cross into the mine from the bottom - 2,000 feet down - where they encounter a subterranean gate marked as “Border 1919.”  They break the gate down and enter the French side of the mine to do their duty as human beings.

In the midst of the rescue one of the French miners trapped in the rubble espies one of the German rescuers in his gas mask and has a hallucinatory flashback that brings him mentally back to the Great War and he seeks to replay the battle while trapped and dying in the collapsed mine.  It is a strangely poignant and heartrending moment showing us how psychology impacts the way that we deal with situations and how the past serves to anchor and often distort the present.

Nationalism is a value that brought low the great technological advances of the 20th century.  The wars and conflicts engendered by nationalist chauvinism and the great game of Imperialism that was so embedded within the nationalist programs of European countries, decimated and made negligible the great strides in science and knowledge that Western civilization bestowed on us.

Like the two petulant children fighting over their marbles at the beginning of this astonishing cinematic achievement that emerged out of the final breaths of a liberal humanist German culture, the French and German protagonists of “Kameradschaft” demean their collective humanity by marking one another as enemies because of a flag. 

Indeed, Pabst is at pains to argue by film’s end that what is common to these men - the fact that they are all miners, working in a mine that has been artificially torn into two because of nationalism, should lead them to identify with one another as comrades because they are all trying to do the essentially the same thing: dig the coal out of the walls of the mine. 

Coal has no nation and no flag.

With the increasingly impotent aestheticization of the intricacies of life - vainly marked by the interiority of directors like Bergman and Fellini - in the post-War European cinema, the brilliant engagement of Pabst’s insights in “Kameradschaft” are perhaps more relevant today than they were then, as idiotic nationalisms and prejudices remain as much of a blight on our world today as they were in the 1930s.

I am often harshly chastised for arguing that human beings can get along with one another based on a cultural understanding of their common interests as people.  It is quite apparent to me that the same arguments were likely made to G.W. Pabst after he released this sterling film.  People, I am sure, told him that he was too naive in thinking that human life and the world we live in could be as simple as a bunch of people from different countries, countries at war with one another, who could all be brought together because of their unified affiliation to the earth and to the jobs that we must do in order to provide material security for ourselves and for others.

But Pabst’s vision, at the very moment that Adolf Hitler’s maniacal and malignant fanaticism began to bleed into the German consciousness, was one that if heeded would have changed the course of history.  It was an attack on the “logic” that Hitler imposed on a weak and frightened people who were too cowardly to withstand its demonic allures; a humanistic vision of a peaceful future based on the commonalities that all human beings share.

With its pacifistically socialist undertones, “Kameradschaft” is no mere piece of Soviet-style Stalinist agitprop, but is a deeply resonant and dignified work of art whose vision is that of the Biblical prophets who asked people to unite in a world ruled not by flags, but by God almighty.  As the prophet Isaiah states:

The time has come to gather all the nations and tongues; they shall come and behold My glory.  (Isaiah 66:18)

In the final moments of his glorious achievement Pabst provides one member of each group to speak with both of their national flags waving in the breeze.  The iconic image of two hands shaking - one French and one German - earlier in the film is redoubled by these stirring moments of two men speaking in different languages but asserting that we are all of one human family and must needs work together to endure the stability of our planet.

We can only imagine what might have happened if the Germans, French and others in Europe took seriously the themes and moral vision of “Kameradschaft” in 1931; mere moments before the cataclysm of the next war, and the Holocaust it engendered killing tens of millions of innocent human beings.  While many would have laughed at or slogged off Pabst’s idealism, those who believed in the spirit of peace that the Prophets recounted to us and which we still refuse to listen to, would have risen to the height of the spirit of humanity and lead us to a more positive vision of what we can be as human beings if only we made the right decisions and respected the fundamental humanity of others not of our tribe.

Such a deconstruction of national identity is a lesson that is yet to be truly learned.

Therefore, a film such as “Kameradschaft” should be mandatory viewing for all those who seek the presence of God on this earth and who mark the value of a single human life as being more important than all the psychotic hate that emerges from playing games with flags and marbles that occupy the corrupt and the faithless.  The machinations of such a humanism are indeed difficult to abide in a world where flag-waving and jingoism rule the day and where those who seek peace - those who truly seek peace and not to wave a white flag with one hand while secretly trying to snatch up all the marbles with the other - are often thrown under the careening bus of greed, pride and arrogance.

G.W. Pabst made some great films that have been rightly accorded their due place in film history.  But “Kameradschaft” has been wrongly passed over in the annals of that history.  Its crisp and articulate realism is anchored in a vision of humanity that asks us to transcend the mindlessly malignant chains of flags and nations and come together as human beings who need to cooperate with each other in order to ensure a uniform standard of life-quality for all our neighbors.

Such a theme is by no means outmoded or inapplicable to our own times.  In fact, in spite of the fact that its message was passed over in 1931 as the world lurched into the cold spires of death, such a work of art can continue to inspire us to change this world and beat down those whose selfishness and ignorance has weakened the human race while peevishly giving them the spoils of a war that in the end will only serve to undermine and destroy their own peace, happiness and contentment.