Portraits of boundless humanity are increasingly rare these days, both in the real world and the fictional ones creatives form. As the world becomes more and more polarized, borders get tighter and tighter and people in positions of power fight tooth and nail to keep that for fear of “the other” getting an inch more respect than they previously had, it’s hard to think that one should turn to a pair of films nearly a century old for inspiration. However, that’s exactly the case with regards to a pair of new DVDs and Blu-rays released by The Criterion Collection.
Not often talked about in the conversation of great humanist (or maybe more so moralist) filmmakers, German auteur G. W. Pabst made a name for himself with films like Pandora’s Box and Three Penny Opera, but a pair of lesser known masterworks are the subject of Criterion’s admiration, as both Westfront 1918 and the incomparable Kameradschaft are now available on ever gorgeous Blu-ray.
While it’s the second of the two films released, the most clear example of Pabst’s incredibly emotional film making is the 1931 classic Kameradschaft. Based on the 1906 Courrieres mine disaster, the film tells the story of a group of French miners who become trapped inside a mine, and the group of German miners who attempt to rescue them from the rubble. Set on the border of the two countries, the story is transplanted to the conclusion of WWI, turning what could have been a simply harrowing historical drama into something profoundly transcendent. Narratively, the film is split among the groups, as the French begin to do everything within their powers to keep themselves alive and the Germans risk their own lives to save as many more as they can. With war on the periphery (save for one breathtaking flashback), Kameradschaft is a haunting and revelatory meditation on the power of the human spirit and a petition for real humanity across nationalist boundaries.
Moving WWI to the foreground is Westfront 1918, a film which Kameradschaft feels very much in conversation with and ultimately a continuation of. A war picture unlike any you’ve ever seen, particularly of this vintage, Westfront is more narratively propulsive than its spiritual sequel, introducing us to a selection of characters from which the film draws its drama. There’s “The Student,” a young man who haplessly falls in love with a local woman from the French town where he is holding up. Then there’s Karl, a soldier on leave who returns home only to discover that his wife has moved on with another man, ultimately driving him to seek a return to his platoon. There are also The Bavarian and The Lieutenant, both of whom help round out the film’s central cast but are little more than manifested tropes, much as their non-descript names may hint. All of whom return to the battlefield, setting up a picture that is as emotionally devastating narratively as it is groundbreaking aesthetically.
That’s something that can be said for both pictures, actually. Shot by Fritz Arno Wagner (with help on Westfront from Charles Metain), both films are almost impressionistic in their use of contrast heavy black and white, and Pabst’s camera is a lucid, loose one. Clearly influential to films like Paths of Glory, the trench sequences in Westfront are absolutely horrific, feeling at once incredibly naturalistic and yet almost supernatural in its sense of atmosphere and overwhelming dread, a dread that ultimately extends to its finale, and specifically the final title card. Who knew a simple question mark to leave jaws on the floor?
Similarly atmospheric, albeit to an entirely different extent, is Kameradschaft. As one could gather from the title, the narrative here is light, instead seeing Pabst working in more expressionistic traditions. Heavy on theme and mood, Kameradschaft is a nightmarish, claustrophobic movie, that is a genuine discovery the likes of which cinephiles spend lifetimes trying to come across. Most of the film is spent within the confines of the mine, and the photography here is defies superlatives. Depth-less blacks abound, playing as much like a horror film in some sequences as a standard drama. It shouldn’t be shocking, though, as this is at its heart a disaster picture of sorts, just one that draws itself out of the German expressionism tradition. Ultimately a call for unity in the face of adversity, Pabst concludes this film on a more lively note, one of muted optimism that’s profoundly shattering when taken in historical context. Released in 1931, Kameradschaft’s humanism is in stark contrast to the nationalist rhetoric that would sweep across the country just a few years later, and had been brimming throughout it since the conclusion of WWI. Similar in historical melancholy to a film like People On Sunday, Pabst’s film is a potent and emotionally textured look at human compassion and is utterly captivating in a modern age where that’s in rare quantities.
As far as the pair of Criterion releases go, these are going to be hard to one-up as the year progresses. They may be slim supplement-wise in comparison to a behemoth like their Breakfast Club release, but what that release has in extra-textual materials these two have in sociological urgency. Rarely seen and now given a new life thanks to absolutely awe-inspiring restorations, these two releases are definitive examples of what films this brand should be hunting down and has become world renowned for having done so. Westfront has the seminal supplement here, which is a one hour French TV show that features WWI veterans reacting to seeing the film in 1969. It’s a gorgeous and moving watch, a film which brings to the forefront the emotional truth found within Pabst’s frames. Also included on this disc are an interview with scholar Jan-Christopher Horak, who is also featured in a similar discussion on the Kameradschaft disc. Another name found on both releases is editor Jean Oser, who is interviewed on both. Finally there is a restoration demonstration on the Westfront release that’s eye opening and Kameradschaft has an interview with another film scholar, Hermann Barth, which is a rather eye opening watch. Overall these are two rarely seen films given context both cultural and artistically, cementing their director as one of the great masters of his, or any, time.