There is a mine on the border between France and Germany where the workers there do not ordinarily meet up, one country keeping to one side and the other country sticking to the other. However, as there has been a dearth of employment in Germany at this time, a lot of German men are seeking to cross the border into France in search of work, in spite of being told by the guards there are barely enough jobs to satisfy their own market, never mind that of immigrants. Nevertheless, a loose agreement between the states sees some Germans trying their luck, though thanks to the close proximity to the Great War there is not always a warm welcome for them in the neighbouring country - what could bring them together?
How about a disaster? Kameradschaft, meaning Comradeship, was G.W. Pabst attempting to build bridges after his First World War movie Westfront 1918 which had depicted the conflict as Hell on Earth to ensure that it would never happen again. This was more Hell under the earth, as he took the historical facts of a mining accident from 1906 and updated the event to modern times, all the better to put across his message of peace and the benefits of getting along with your closest neighbours. Naturally, history tells us that was ultimately a failure, for the next decade and a half at least, before diplomacy made its presence felt, so perhaps Pabst was onto something, if only the Germans had listened.
As it was, this took the form of an early disaster movie, as we were introduced to the human interest element all the better to generate our interest and sympathies in the drama that was about to be unleashed. The tensions between the nations were illustrated in an early scene where three jolly Germans visit a dance hall and are welcomed by the waitress who offers them three beers and three schnapps but when one of them asks a lady to dance, there is a misunderstanding: she declines because she is tired, but the Germans believe she turned them down because there is a prejudice held against them. There is nearly a fight, but the trio leave before any altercation, thus establishing that there is little love lost between the peoples.
However, we have also been privy to what is happening below the ground, and the mine has had a fire burning on the French side for some time, not affecting the German side but a worry nonetheless. Then the worst happens, gas ignites and an explosion occurs that brings down rooves and rubble, trapping a lot of German miners in the process; making matters worse, the rescue crews cannot see a way of getting to them when the situation is so dangerous, and the lift into the shaft is not working properly, having been damaged. There was a problem solving nature to the plotting which fed into the angle where we wanted to see everyone saved and safe, but also were as in the dark as the safety teams as to precisely how that would be carried out, though one old grandfather manages to get through security in search of his grandson.
Somewhat improbably, he finds the boy, in one of the less believable plot developments - he has sneaked past the guards at the gate where the townsfolk, including a mass of wives and girlfriends, have gathered to demand to be let in, though quite how they thought they could help is unclear, they were simply panicked and did not wish to feel useless in the face of this calamity. But then the German miners hear about the cave in and after some discussion they decide to help, which proves a turning point, and therein the message Pabst was keen to deliver was more blatant than ever: we must work together for a better world. He didn't quite get starry eyed and utopian, but that was the aim he was heading for since the alternative had been seen all too dreadfully in the war of a couple of decades before; he even included a couple of flashbacks to that time to underline this. There was a sense of desperation in how overloaded Kameradschaft was with this lesson, as history began to run away from it, but it's notable how relevant it is today, melodramatic as it was in places.
[Eureka have released this on a double bill, single disc Blu-ray with another Pabst early sound film, Westfront 1918. A booklet is included. The quality is surprisingly good.]