Westfront 1918 & Kameradschaft

Studio: Criterion

Feb 02, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Two films, bound by circumstance, history, and their director are fortunately seeing the light of day in newly restored editions. Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft, two of German filmmaker G.W. Pabst’s first talkie films, were released in 1930 and 1931, respectively, with only two movies, including the renowned The Threepenny Opera, released between them. The difference is The Threepenny Opera has been widely available in the decades since, where the two films sandwiching it in release have had a rockier path to public eyes.

Before both editions on the new Blu-Rays, there is a disclaimer explaining that both films were reconstructed using dupe positives stored in the BFI National Archive. The process is broken down in an essential, eight-minute documentary attached to Westfront 1918 explaining how they pieced together the final cut. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.

Westfront 1918 is, as many war films that have come since, as bleak and distressing as you can imagine. It is fiercely anti-war, but is told from the German side of things. While Western war films almost always focus on the American effort in military pursuits, it’s interesting to see the other side. This doubly true when the only visible difference in depiction is the language that is predominantly being spoken. It opens in a French town where German soldiers are resting at a French family’s home. A young character known only as “The Student” falls in love with the young lady showing them hospitality. The Student is one of four characters that serve as the primary vessels for the story. Another, Karl, returns home on leave to discover his wife in bed with another man – who is also about to leave for the front. His leave is less than pleasant, leaving him longing to return to the war zone with his comrades. It’s a duality showing that no matter where the soldiers went, there was nothing but heartache and suffering – like I said, it’s bleak.

And Kameradschaft isn’t much lighter, at least not initially. Pabst and his three screenwriters adapted a true-life mining disaster from 1906 in Courrieres, France, moving the story to present day in the years after World War I. With fires raging in the mines, the French miners attempt to build walls to block them from spreading. Eventually, the fires blast through a wall and the shafts collapse, trapping the miners underground at the mercy of being trapped, being without much oxygen, the creeping gas, and even rising water. A nearby group of German miners rally around the cause to help them despite the tensions existing between the two countries and their peoples following the war. This helps it serve as a pseudo-sequel (as film scholar Hermann Barth says in an accompanying interview) to Westfront 1918 because the war, while not explicitly a part of the film – save for one, hallucinatory flashback – Kameradschaft wouldn’t be the movie it is without that context.

The Germans run to the aid of the French, not because of some kind of egotistical pissing contest, but because it’s simply the right thing to do. There are individuals who resist, who turn their back on those in need, outlining the need to avoid lazy stereotypes and judgments of others. It’s a disaster film that attempts, and succeeds, in delivering a rousing story about overlooking differences in each other to serve the common good, something that often is missing in everyday society, especially if you follow the news closely.

Westfront 118 accomplishes something similar. It humanizes the German soldiers, the grunts on the frontlines, and would be a perfect companion piece to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front in an almost journalistic pairing.

These two films from Pabst are certainly benefited by an academic approach, both due to their former rarity, but how they fall in between two major conflicts that featured Germany at the forefront. But, even though this is the case, that doesn’t mean they’re strictly to be seen as homework. The camerawork on display in both movies is extremely vibrant, especially in Kameradschaft. Fritz Arno Wagner served as a cinematographer on both films, and watching the camera pull backward down the mine shaft as a miner races forward with the ceilings collapsing behind him is brimming with intensity. It’s seamless. It’s horrific and beautiful in equal measure.

Granted, Westfront 1918 gives more time to its individual characters while Kameradschaft seems more focused on its thematic, anti-prejudice message than it does in developing any characters beyond being able bodies. But both films work despite their slight narrative deficiencies. Kameradschaft also feels like the more mature film in how it is constructed – the angles used as the German miners charge their bosses to volunteer rescue services are askew. At first, those in management are shown looming over the workers, only for it to even out when they agree that they’re on common ground.

The editions aren’t as jam-packed as other releases from the Criterion Collection, but it’s always going to be difficult when the principals involved with the original film have been deceased for decades. As it is, there are essays alongside each release, documentaries, and multiple interviews with scholars and Jean Oser, who worked as the editor on both films. It may have been a better idea to release them together in a set as opposed to separate releases despite their narrative differences and their appearances in Pabst’s filmography, but the way they’re presented – alongside thematic similarities – they feel far more of a piece than separate entities. They belong together.




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