Based on the horrific Courrières mine disaster that killed nearly 1,100 workers, G.W. Pabst's Kameradschaft (1931) attempts to bridge the massive post-war gap between France and his home country of Germany. This claustrophobic drama transplants the story to 1919, when World War I changed the borders between nations; as a result, a major coal mine in the Lorraine-Saar region is literally divided in two with a gate separating both groups of workers. Eventually, the unthinkable happens: small fires on the French side get out of control, triggering an explosion (as well as partial collapses and massive plumes of coal dust) that threatens the lives of those underground and anyone who attempts to save them.
Not surprisingly, Kameradschaft -- which translates to "Comradeship" -- is an entirely hopeful film, and one that appeals to a global mindset free from nationalism. Yet even without reading between the lines, it holds up perfectly well for a film quickly approaching its 90th (!) birthday: these universal themes still carry plenty of emotional weight, so anchoring a human drama around such a high-stakes historical event only deepens its lasting effectiveness. Yet a lot of the film's success is due to purely technical strengths: Erno Metzner and Karl Vollbrecht's stunning set design perfectly captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of life underground, while the striking cinematography by Fritz Arno Wagner (who previously shot F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, and would film Fritz Lang's M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse during the next two years) gives Kameradschaft a deep, haunting, and moody appeal. While the above-ground drama -- mostly concerning various encounters between French and German citizens, as well as the initial rescue attempts -- pales slightly in comparison, as a whole Kameradschaft still packs a considerable punch.
Criterion's new Blu-ray release of Kameradschaft marks the film's first domestic home video edition since a VHS tape released by Embassy Entertainment nearly three decades ago. Not surprisingly, it sports a nicely restored transfer sourced from original elements, as well as a handful of new and historical supplements that add a necessary layer of context for die-hard fans and newcomers alike. Fans of the director should also be interested in Criterion's upcoming Blu-ray of Pabst's Westfront 1918, available separately -- but if you're region-free, Masters of Cinema already has a double-feature that brings both together.
Presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio (narrower than the familiar American 1.33:1 format, and thus fittingly appropriate for this claustrophobic drama), Criterion's brand new 1080p transfer of Kameradschaft was sourced from a recent 2K restoration of original materials including a fine-grain positive and the original nitrate negative; this represents the film's disc debut in Region 1, and it's a great starting point. Even so, those new to foreign films from the 1930s and earlier should keep their expectations in check: Kameradschaft is certainly rough around the edges and a far cry from the thick, stable image you might get from a well-preserved Hollywood classic. Debris, image fluctuations, and even a few missing frames can be easily spotted along the way, while overall image detail runs a bit on the soft side and black levels often reach no deeper than a dark gray. But overall, it's a fine presentation that's more than acceptable under the circumstances, and likely represents the film's visual peak since early theatrical runs.
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As usual, Criterion plays it straight with a PCM 1.0 Master Audio track that preserves the film's original mono mix; like the video presentation, a few forgivable flaws remain (mostly some mild hiss during a few scenes, as well as a somewhat thin high end) but it's mostly great news here. Dialogue is typically crisp and precise throughout, with well-balanced music cues and background effects that rarely fight for attention. Optional English subtitles are included, but only for translation of the French and German speech.
Criterion's interface is smooth, descriptive, and easy to navigate; the disc is locked for Region A players and is housed in Criterion's stocky keepcase. The nice Booklet includes tech specs, photos, an essay by author and critic Luc Sante, plus the 1930 text by Karl Otten that Kameradschaft was based on.
Three Interviews form the bulk of these supplements and provide a good mix of perspectives. Film scholar Hermann Barth (30:31), recorded in 2017 exclusively for this new release, speaks about Kameradschaft's production and lasting impact; it's paired with a number of great historical photos and supportive clips that paint a very informative picture. Film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak (14:48), recorded in 2016, goes into a bit more detail about the historical context of the film. Finally, a 1988 audio-only chat with editor Jean Oser (12:38) is paired with footage from the French version of Kameradschaft, from which a few scenes were used to create the new transfer. Overall, a fine effort considering the film's age and history.
A unique drama that fits in perfectly with Criterion's ever-growing catalog of foreign cinema, G.W. Pabst's Kameradschaft is a claustrophobic, gripping, and important film that has aged about as well as any film approaching its ninth decade of existence. Featuring top-notch cinematography, a story deeply rooted in historical fact, and outstanding set design, there's a lot here for new viewers and die-hard fans alike. Criterion's release of Kameradschaft would have made a perfect double feature with Pabst's Westfront 1918 (available separately), but stands well enough on its own with a pleasing new A/V transfer and several informative extras. Firmly Recommended, although a rental might be enough for some.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.