There is a persistent bias to laud the achievements of those seen as peers over those nominally determined to be “the other.” Those of open mind, when presented with new evidence, will incorporate it and proceed from a more informed and enlightened point of view while others will reject and continue unchanged, either personally or professionally unable or unwilling to accept that their standpoint is unjustified or unsupported.
A director whose contemporary regard matched that of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau or Fritz Lang, Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s prolific output has not continued to be as celebrated as that of his peers. There are perhaps two reasons for this, in that Murnau and Lang each produced iconic works within genres which encourage invention and visual style, the horror classic Nosferatu and the landmark science fiction of Metropolis, whereas Pabst’s work was more dramatically conventional though no less technically accomplished, and also that his own reputation was later severely tarnished by his association with the Nazi party.
That the unquestioningly nationalistic films he was required to make were not only most likely obliged simply in order if he wished to continue working if not outright coerced can be presumed; that they were in stark and obvious contrast to the anti-war stance of his earlier work is a matter of record, and released on Blu-ray by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema range, 1930’s Westfront 1918 and 1931’s Kameradschaft would provide sufficient confirmation of Pabst’s true sentiment and talent even if not backed up by the fact that both were sufficiently threatening to the Third Reich as to be banned in Germany during their reign.
Released the same year as Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Westfront 1918 was based on Ernst Johannsen’s Vier von der Infanterie (Four from the Infantry), a similarly themed anti-war novel depicting the bleak trenches of the western front of the Great War from the point of view of the German soldiers who suffered and died in those intolerable conditions.
Opening in high spirits in a beer house whose location near the front becomes suddenly apparent when the lights go out and those present flee for shelter from the falling shells, this is the Great War not as seen in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory after a generation of distance and the subsequent overshadowing horror of the Second World War and certainly not the blockbuster glory of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman released a century removed, closer than either in terms of proximity to the events depicted and how they are represented by those who actually lived through those days.
Bold and unflinching, Westfront 1918 is an impressive achievement which does not feel eighty five years old, its stark approach unsanitised or glamourised as were so many later Hollywood depictions of war, with confusion and broken lines of communication and men buried in dugouts collapsed by misdirected “friendly fire” within the opening moments.
The enemy never seen and never named, the men sit together as the bombs go off, wooden crosses fashioned for their fallen comrades with no comfort to be found at home as Karl (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse‘s Gustav Diessl, himself a army veteran and former prisoner of war) discovers his wife sharing a bed with the butcher who brings her favours in return for her favour, his own mother siding with her in that they need to eat and there is no other way to obtain food.
A grim a gloomy film which has minimal narrative, the point is that their endeavours are indeed pointless, that war is suffering and death without purpose to the men who fight, a warning issued by Pabst that it should not be allowed to happen again, the tragic legacy being that within ten years of release the world had once again allowed that exact thing to happen.
Removed from the immediate arena of the war it is nevertheless present both thematically and physically in Kameradschaft, set on the border of France and Germany where a coal mine which straddles the divide is operated separately by two companies with two workforces in the post-war hangover of austerity, reparation, high unemployment and mistrust, the men once again working in inhuman subterranean conditions irregardless that it is ostensibly peacetime.
When an explosion traps the miners on the French side, a hideous cascade as section after section of the roof collapses, it is the German rescue team led by Wittkopp (Ernst Busch, a lifelong communist who later fought against the Bando Nacional of the Spanish Civil War) who break across the border in defiance of their cynical co-workers to save those they see as their brothers, their perceived comradeship giving the film its title.
Possibly one of the very earliest major disaster movies and inspired by the 1906 Courrières mining accident in which over a thousand lives were lost, the story shifted forward thirteen years to demonstrate and inspire co-operation between the two nations so recently in conflict, beyond the impressive pyrotechnics it is a very human film which retains its power to horrify and to move.
Tellingly, like Westfront 1918, Kameradschaft ends with a warning, the men embracing and promising filial support and an end to war in the sunlight above while in the depths the authorities who have allowed co-operation for the duration of the emergency are already reinstating the barriers between the two sides of the mine, unwilling to tolerate any solidarity or sharing of resources.
Reflecting the original release which featured dialogue in both German and French without subtitles which emphasised to audiences the difficulty in understanding across the border were they not fluent in both, Eureka’s release offers English subtitle options for German only translations and French only translations and, fortunately, for all dialogue to be rendered into English, but it is a fascinating exercise to watch a scene play without full benefit of comprehension as in the dance hall where misunderstanding between workers from either side almost leads to blows.
Both films introduced by Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, his knowledge and insight assists in the appreciation of the films, two of the first “talkies” made by former silent movie director Pabst, yet with performances of conviction, tracking shots, dynamic action and extensive location work; compared with the static and stilted 1931 Dracula of Tod Browning of the same era, another former silent director who struggled with the transition, the work of G W Pabst is a world away.
Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft are available now on Blu-ray from Eureka Video