Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
Mines have a reputation as a tough, dangerous environment. On the other side of the coin, the industry is known for a strong sense of solidarity between workers, which has been evident through strikes, accidents and wars. Even miners’ housing is now inextricably associated with solidarity, such as the workers’ estate in northern France which, along with the area’s industrial facilities, has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2012. Most recently, miners faced new difficulties with the closure of pits throughout most of Europe in the second half of the 20th century. Two films in particular depict the great unity, courage and tenacity of the mining communities. The first, Kameradschaft, is a German feature from the early 1930s, whose title (Comradeship in English) is a direct reference to the miners’ solidarity. The second, more recent British release Brassed Off looks at how miners’ community spirit also shines through in creative endeavors.
Kameradschaft, G. W. Pabst, 1932
G. W. Pabst (1885-1967) was an Austrian director renowned for his work between the two world wars. He was the creative force behind a diverse range of films, from Pandora’s Box to The Threepenny Opera and Westfront 1918. Pabst’s 1932 feature Kameradschaft, as its title suggests, highlights the miners’ camaraderie on either side of the French-German border in the wake of a tragic accident (the French title of the film, La tragédie de la mine, puts the emphasis solely on this event). It is set in the Lorraine region, but a number of scenes, including those showing the firedamp explosionFiredamp is methane and other gases naturally released by coal in mines..., general panic and waiting at the gates, were shot in Nœux-les-Mines in Pas-de-Calais in northern France. The story takes place around the border between France and Germany (hence the choice to set the movie in the Lorraine area). At a dance hall, German miners want to ask a French woman to dance, but tensions rise quickly and almost lead to a fight between the French and German pitmen. War is a not-so-distant memory for these characters, with each side remembering facing the enemy across the trenches. They are all back at work when a terrible firedamp explosion traps many French miners deep underground, out of reach of the rescue team. So a group of German miners go through the underground passages, break through a gate and help their French comrades to safety. In an atmosphere of relief and reconciliation, the German and French workers celebrate together. But authorities from both countries quickly rebuild the mining gate, closing back up the underground passage representing the border.
In this magnificent film, now considered a classic, history is an ever-present force. The Great War is a very real memory for the former soldiers, now civilians, and the French miners are somewhat frightened to see their German rescuers looming toward them in the depths of the mine. What’s more, hopes for peace following the 1914-1918 war are beginning to fade, with the openly racist and anti-French Nazi party winning 230 of 608 seats to become the largest party in German parliament in the July 1932 federal elections. Would the “war to end all wars” end up repeating itself? It was with a view to sounding the alarm that Pabst directed this film on the theme of solidarity that transcends differences in nationality between workers in danger. The movie makes a point of showing the characters speaking in their own language to demonstrate that the language barrier is far from insurmountable. Kameradschaft was itself an example of French-German cooperation, with French director Robert Beaudouin featured on some posters for the film’s release. However, the end of the film casts doubt on the uplifting message: is the mining gate, closed up once more, an omen of the tragedy to come?
A Plot Inspired by the Courrières Mine Disaster (1906)
Pabst’s film is directly inspired by real events from 25 years earlier. The Courrières mine disaster in March 1906 is considered France’s worst industrial catastrophe, with 1,099 pitmen killed by a firedamp or coaldust explosion in the mine near Billy-Montigny. Rescue attempts were organized, but France did not have sufficiently high-tech equipment to work deep underground in low-oxygen conditions. Although relations between France and Germany were at the time extremely strained due to the annexation of Alsace and Moselle in 1871 and tension over the status of Morocco, the German Empire decided nevertheless to send teams from Westphalia equipped with the latest breathing apparatus. It was a noble gesture, widely covered by the press and postcards. In the end, though, despite their advanced technology, the rescuers arrived too late. Back home in Germany, they were hailed as heroes by Emperor Wilhelm II. Nowadays, the act would probably be seen as a PR stunt rather than a humanitarian operation. Nevertheless, it represented a small glimmer of humanity in the midst of a terrible tragedy, and would later inspire the film by G. W. Pabst.
More than 60 years after Kameradschaft came British feature film Brassed Off, set in the North of England at a time when mines were threatened with closure under a national program to phase out the coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... industry, mirroring a trend seen in many other European nations. As in most mining countries, the fictional town of Grimley has a colliery brass band. The musicians form a small community that takes center stage in the film, against the backdrop of the struggles and concerns of a single-industry town with a bleak outlook. The title is a pun on “brass band” and the British expression “brassed off”, which means to be exasperated. The miners in the band are not optimistic about the future, but they still hold out hope to save their mine and to take part in the national brass band final in London. Problems begin to mount up, from silicosis (an occupational hazard of mining) to the inevitable closure of the mine, depression, attempted suicide and the perceived betrayal of Gloria, the only woman in the band, who changes sides before eventually rejoining her home community. However, the deeply rooted solidarity between workers in an industry that was once the pride of Britain (see the Planète Énergies article on How Green Was My Valley) comes out in full force at the band’s performance in the final at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Led by their conductor, Danny, the miners pull out all the stops in their rendition of Rossini’s William Tell Overture and win the competition. They may not save their jobs, but they are at least able to demonstrate the triumph of unity over the long and drawn-out hardship of the mine closures. A regained sense of pride and the respect of others are the best prize anyone could ask for.
The Brass Band Tradition
From wind ensembles to brass bands, choral societies and orchestras, often featuring predominantly wind instruments, music and singing have been a tradition in mining communities since the 19th century, particularly in France’s Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. For miners, musical groups were a way to express their unity and escape the difficulties of their daily lives, while mining company managers saw them as a tool to enhance team spirit and, in some cases, further the company’s social standing. In exchange for the company paying the expenses related to the bands and parades, members were required to maintain a high degree of self-discipline in their attendance at rehearsals and behavior in public, as well as taking a neutral stance in discussions. Saint Cecilia’s Day (the festival of the patron saint of musicians on November 22) and Saint Barbara’s Day (the patron saint of miners) were traditionally an opportunity for the bands to showcase their skills, and competitions were held regularly, like the one in Brassed Off. The bands were organized in an almost regimental way, with musicians often donning military-style uniforms, although many wore miners’ overalls and hard hats. They often reflected the nationalities of mine workers, chiefly Polish. Lastly, a number of songs about mining – sometimes with an undercurrent of protest after the Courrières disaster – became popular hits, such as La valse des mineurs.
Find out more:
- See the two films:
- G. W. Pabst, Kameradschaft, 1932
- Mark Herman, Brassed Off, 1997, winner of the César Award for Best Foreign Film.
- Read the multi-author publication following a conference marking the 100 year anniversary of the Courrières mine disaster: Courrières, aux risques de l’Histoire, GRHEN, 2006.
- Visit the Mining History Centre in Lewarde, northern France, a museum and documentary resources center where visitors can see the mining facilities used in a bygone era.
- For visual resources, watch news footage available on the website of the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA). See in particular the clip entitled “Défilé et souvenirs de l'harmonie de la fosse 13”, filmed near LoosenGohelle in 1970, which shows a marching band with musicians wearing miners’ outfits, followed by a former band member recounting his memories.