Ranking: #32/111

Director: G.W. Pabst (Austria)

Genre: Disaster Drama

At a mine near the border between France and Germany at Lorraine-Saar, an explosion and fire collapses part of a mine, trapping some French miners underground. After they hear about the accident, two German miners on the other side of the border, Wittkop and Kasper, lead an expedition to save the trapped miners. The story is based on an actual industrial accident, the Courrieres mine disaster of 1906, during which 1,099 miners died. Expert search teams from both countries took part in the rescue.  

Made by one of the acknowledged European masters of silent film, G. W. Pabst, this is a compelling, visually dynamic depiction of the disaster. The cinematography is expressive as an intimate, highly mobile camera probes every inch of the damaged mine as if it is itself searching for the trapped miners. The viewer is thus drawn into feeling part of the rescue effort. The realism of the mining sets, where these sequences were shot, is palpable. The partially illuminated underground scenes are filmed with a documentary-like authenticity in blacks and whites, with many shots taken from behind twisted pipes, entangled wires and chains, debris and broken posts. As the daring rescue work continues, the audience feels the claustrophobia and tension as if they have been placed into these scenes. We are taken right to the coalface.

Pabst doesn’t need to introduce any soundtrack, or music, relying instead on natural sounds, like the creaking of mineshafts, the dripping of water, rumbling, the crashes of rubble, the hammering and pounding of the team of rescuers trying to find survivors. Although the rescue is portrayed a collective effort from miners working as one, the story is also humanised with individualised portraits, such as the miner who saves his own grandson and gets his pulse and heartbeat going again in one of the film’s most touching scenes.

I love this film because it immerses the audience in the action, mood, tension and eerie world of a collapsed mine in the aftermath of a large-scale disaster. Pabst achieves this through an exemplary exercise in cinematic realism. In Kameradschaft (Comradeship), he pioneered the disaster genre of film.