Pabst’s earthy war film is a devastating watch, seeming to come from a time before war films were recast in terms of heroes, heroism and visual clichés.
Four friends, soldiers, are mucking about in a bar; before too long they’re back in trenches, being constantly bombarded by French artillery and by friendly fire.
Westfront 1918 is at times heavy handed in its messages but all ideals are undercut by the visceral nature of what happens on screen. It would perhaps be a depressing experience if it wasn’t for some exhilarating tracking shots across trenches and early live sound that’s as technically impressive as it is hair-raising.
Pabst’s signature images here are intimate, often claustrophobic, scenes that contextualise the main characters, who are presented as emerging from the (usually grimy and underlit) milieu. This is as true for the bar scenes in Westfront 1918 as for the caved-in mine scenes in Kameradschaft.
Kameradschaft tells the story of a mine disaster beneath the French German border. German miners come to the rescue of their French co-workers, in a show of pan-Europeanism that has ambiguous political coordinates, if only because the capitalist mine owners are fully supportive of their men’s efforts.
Again, there are some wonderfully tense and visceral sequences below ground as well as close-up tracking shots through the mine face that are very impressive given the film technology of the day.
Both films move between scenes of pre-noir murky lighting and bright daylight, which in the context of the Westfront’s battle environs is especially surprising. The wide, clean shots landscape shots here feel like respite, although almost every shot includes a dark, background detonation of soil.
Some of the imagery may be degraded but these two anti-war, pro-Internationalist films from 87 years ago feel like a deep draught of fresh air – despite being largely set in trenches and mines. And despite being ultimately cynical and nihilistic, utterly hopeless about the outcomes for the central characters, they are strangely uplifting.
Westfront 1918/ Kameradschaft is out in a dual format edition on 24 March 2017.