• Westfront 1918/Kameradschaft



    Released by: Eureka Masters of Cinema
    Released on: July 24, 2017
    Directed by: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
    Cast: Fritz Kampers, Gustav Diessl, Hans-Joachim Moebis, Claus Clausen, Jackie Monnier, Hanna Hoessrich, Else Heller, Carl Ballhaus, Wladimir Sokoloff/Alexander Granach, Fritz Kampers, Ernst Busch, Elisabeth Wendt, Gustav Puttjer, Oskar Hocker, Daniel Mendaille, Georges Charlia
    Year: 1930/1931

    The Movies:

    Westfront 1918: In late 1928, Erich Maria Remarque published his seminal fictional biography of life in the Great War, All Quiet on the Western Front, as a serialized entry in a German newspaper. In early 1929, the story was published as a novel in Remarque’s native country, with printings in other languages quickly following. Remarque's novel is an incredibly moving and powerful evocation of the first World War, operating as both a factual history and a work of literary artistic genius, putting it on a plane where few books reside, among them Elie Wiesel's Night and Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The film rights to the book were quickly snatched up by Universal, which was ran by Carl Laemmle, a German emigre to the United States. Realizing the potential in such a story, Germany produced its own work about the war, directed by the respected G.W. Pabst, best known for his Expressionist work during the silent era. This was his first sound film.

    As the title suggests, Westfront 1918 takes place on Germany’s western front in the year 1918, the final year of World War I. It follows four soldiers—Karl (Gustav Diessl), a Bavarian (Fritz Kampers), a student (Hans-Joachim Moebis), and a lieutenant (Claus Clausen)—as they battle the French. Given that it was made after Germany lost the war (and was required to make heavy reparations to the countries it had wronged), the film is a pacifist work. Though Pabst disliked the term, he took a realistic approach to telling the story. In many ways, it bears more than a passing similarity to Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which had been released a mere month before, though how much of that was intentional is anyone’s guess. It’s certainly a somber film, one that tests the medium by setting up one character as a hero only to kill him off in advance of the film’s climax. Pabst’s eye is as visionary as ever, and he makes the most of his war-torn locations. Among the film’s most effective moments is a daylit battlefield sequence that is difficult to watch in its realism.

    Fearing its effect on the public, Adolf Hitler later banned the film, believing it might discourage support of his efforts to reunite the Hapsburg Empire. Over the years, the film’s reputation has grown, and today it is considered a masterwork of German cinema.

    Kameradschaft: “The film was based on the historic Courrieres mining disaster on 10 March 1906, when over 1,200 miners were buried alive. At the time, German minors rushed to the aid of their French comrades. Pabst dedicated his film, which updated the setting to the present day, to these German miners.” Or so says an onscreen note before the film begins. That disaster is considered the worst mining disaster in European history, and had it not been surpassed by a single mining disaster in China that killed almost 1,600 men, it would be the worst such disaster in world history. At 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 10, 1906, a coal dust explosion tore through a French mine, instantly killing many and causing a mine collapse that trapped and killed others. The cause for the explosion was never determined, though a couple of theories were proposed.

    Pabst’s film explores what happened in the aftermath of the explosion. With so few skilled miners surviving the catastrophe, authorities sent for outside assistance to help with the rescue efforts; one group arrived from Germany, and it is this group that Pabst chooses to focus on (hence the film’s title; kameradschaft is the German word for comradeship). The film, which updates the action, begins with two boys—one German, one French—playing with marbles. They have a disagreement and are separated by border guards; their relationship, then, is a metaphor for the relationship between the French and German peoples after the end of World War I. Tensions between the two countries were frayed by political division. Not long after the war ends, fires break out on the French side of a mine that stretches across the two nations’ borders. The film diverges from reality by having its German rescuers actually save a number of miners, but the message is a positive one. Despite differences and our past relationships, former enemies can get along and help each other.

    Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft are two of G.W. Pabst’s most interesting pictures. Which one the viewer will prefer will depend entirely on the viewer’s own predilections and interests. Those who are into war films, particularly realistic ones, will likely prefer Westfront 1918, while those who are into melodramas will likely prefer Kameradschaft. It’s too bad that these films were denied to the public for so long, though both of them are now available in the restorations they deserve.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft come to Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line in 1080p high definition with an MPEG-4 AVC encode, both placed on a single BD50 disc. Since both films run less than two hours and the only extras are introductions to each film, the disc is more than capable of holding the information without serious compression issues. Viewers may notice that the image seems particularly lean; that’s because the films were shot at a 1.20:1 aspect ratio rather than the standard 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 ratios, giving them more head and feet room than the average presentation. Pabst utilizes this ratio well, composing stark and uncompromised images of the horrors of war and industrialism that are well served by the heightened visual splendor of the Blu-ray format.

    Before Westfront 1918 begins, on-screen titles reveal that the film “premiered in Berlin on 23 May 1930 at the Capitol Cinema. The original negative has been lost. The restoration was based on a master positive from the BFI National Archive collection. Missing scenes were re-inserted using a duplicate negative from Praesens-Film.” From the opening credits on, it’s clear that this is a restoration that has been given the lush treatment it deserves. The texture behind the opening titles is rich and detailed in a way similar to the images on Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) Blu-rays. Grain is well resolved, providing the filmic foundation on which the images lie, images that are generally well detailed (for examples, check out various foxholes with their rocks, dirt, and plant detritus or a bedroom set with flowered wallpaper and paisley bedsheets). Trunks of trees, folds in hair, and streaks of dried mud on faces contribute to Pabst’s realist approach and are well defined in Eureka’s release. In a later scene, a labyrinth of wire fences appears almost three-dimensional in its clarity. Dirt and debris has mostly been cleaned up, though there are occasional scratches related to the restored sequences. The film is dark, and much of it takes place at night or in under-lit interiors; the result is that there’s a fair amount of crush, though this is likely inherent to the original materials, not to the transfer process. Even some of the daylight scenes have a somber shade to them, no doubt a directorial choice on Pabst’s part in keeping with his belief that films should be heightened in their stylish aspects. At times Pabst uses camera filters to blur the edges of the frame, and these sometimes cause the image to appear less deep than it actually is.

    Before Kameradschaft opens, the viewer is told via onscreen titles that “G.W. Pabst’s film Comradeship was filmed in 1931 in a French version and a German one. The premieres took place in Berlin on 17 November 1931, and in Paris on 29 January 1932. … The German’s original negative, opening credits and ending have not survived. The original negative of the slightly divergent French version, La tragedie de la Mine [The Tragedy in the Mine], is preserved in the archive at the Centre National du Cinema et le l’Image Animee (CNC). The reconstruction of the German version is based on a dupe positive from the BFI National Archive. The CNC negative was used for the ending of the film, which was missing in the BFI footage.” (For the record, some shots still remain missing.) The image doesn’t look nearly as gorgeous as that for Westfront 1918. The level of grain is about the same, though black levels are inky and often marred by crush to an even greater degree. At least toward the beginning, detail is comparable to a standard-definition DVD, and the image is frequently blurry and/or out of focus. Some of the blur can be attributed to Pabst’s cinematographic choices, but not all of it. It’s possible that some noise reduction tools have been used to tamp down on the grain, as there are moments when the image appears waxy and unnatural. Dirt and debris is also more prevalent here than in Westfront 1918. As the film progresses, there are instances in which the image comes alive and increased detail shows through, so all is not lost, and it’s cool to have such an oddity in the BD format. But clearly the elements had their issues, and viewers shouldn’t be too disappointed if they go into the film knowing what to expect.

    Presented in lossless German LPCM Mono, both films contain optional English subtitles. These are films that appeared after the coming of sound but before filmdom struck upon the idea of using music to accentuate key scenes or to provoke emotional reactions. As a result, there are no actual scores, just dialogue and sound effects. The sound effects are frequently related to the instruments and effects of war or industrial catastrophes, and that they’re divorced from musical notes makes them particularly effective, adding punch to the realism. While the dialogue is slightly tinny at times (a product of the technology at the time, we assume), it is always clear and understandable.

    As for extras, there are exactly two: an introduction by film historian Jan-Christopher Horak for each film. The intro for Westfront 1918 runs approximately 18 minutes, while the intro for Kameradschaft runs for approximately 15 minutes. For Westfront 1918, Horak discusses various war films of the period and their approaches, though he naturally focuses on Pabst’s view that war is horrific and unnecessary. He also traces Pabst’s career leading up to this film, his political engagement, his collaborators, his characters, and his approach to filmmaking as a whole. For Kameradschaft, he discusses the animosity between the German and the French at the time the film is set and what Pabst’s intention was for the film. He includes more about Pabst’s other work so that both intros avoid being repetitive, instead acting as complements to each other. The intros were produced by Robert Fischer.

    The only other extra is a booklet. The two films are also included on separate DVDs, but these were not provided to Rock! Shock! Pop! for review.

    The Final Word:

    Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft are incredibly powerful and moving films from one of Germany’s greatest directors. The former looks resplendent in the format, while the other is underwhelming. Sounds is good on both, especially considering just how old these films are and the primitive nature of the equipment on which the sound was recorded. That Eureka has chosen to include both films in a single package and at a relatively low price is good news for fans and collectors, however; and it’s doubtful that those who follow Pabst's career will be disappointed with the release.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!