Kameradschaft Zollverein (2015)
by Hanae Utamura and Robert Phillips, created at PACT Zollverein in Essen, Germany
Kameradschaft Zollverein is a thirteen-minute video installation, part of the larger project Holiday at War, that features excerpts of the 1931 dramatic film Kameradschaft directed by Austrian director G. W. Pabst. The story takes place in the Lorraine/Saar region, along the border between France and Germany, and is based on the Courriéres mine disaster in 1906, where, after a coal dust explosion, rescue experts from from the German Westphalia region joined those from Paris to rescue the trapped miners.
Kameradschaft reimagines the incident in 1919, in a mine that straddles the Germany/France border, with various underground gates separating the halves of the mine into respective German and French parts. Despite the post- war tensions and the French occupying the Ruhr area, after the coal dust explosion on the French side, the German miners rally to rescue the trapped French miners. The film is a strong call for comradery and peace between nations, and was released the year before Adolf Hitler ran against Paul von Hindenburg in the German presidential elections.
The film also features scenes of the vast showers coal miners would use after work, with sometimes several thousand of them showering at once in the same facility, hoisting their clothes up on ropes toward the ceiling. Similarly, Kameradschaft Zollverein was created at PACT Zollverein, the shower building of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex which was transformed into a choreographic center and artist residency over time since the cease of operations at the mine. The video installation also features footage taken of the Ruhr Museum, which boasts extensive collections on the geology, archaeology, history, and photography of the Ruhrgebiet, as well as material from and machines used during the operation of the coal mine.
While viewing Kameradschaft Zollverein, one might imagine a sort of archivist, someone deeply interested in history – they might be a librarian, or a historian, or perhaps someone who sits in a basement organizing historical documents, without sunlight or other people around. This person organizes, categorizes, arranges, collects, preserves pieces of things from the past for their fellow humans, and future humans to use and learn from. They may not really know how this will happen, but nonetheless this archivist, like an archeaologist wiping the dust off the bones they found, cleans the historical
objects, showers them. They clothe them in museum glass or book covers, but most importantly, they rescue them.
And they have special tools for their trade, and training and knowledge most people aren’t privileged to have. They have expensive machines to excavate these objects from the past, and also to clean them, and to preserve them, and to make them maximally useful.
Like most of us, this archivist has heard Santaya’s quote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Whether it be an event that devastated a species unrelated to their own, or some act of war that resulted in generations of their ancestors’ oppression, or out of sympathy for the pain their own ancestors have caused others, the archivist seek to help themselves and others learn from the trauma of the past.
Perhaps others turn a blind eye to history because it is simply too painful to learn about. Only this archivist, and others like them, have the bravery, the ethical imperative in fact, to unearth the truth about the past, to show this proof, this actual, historical object to the world, in all of its inarguable reality.
But, perhaps the protagonist archivist of our imagination discovers this historical traumatic object, and displays it before others, to effect the course of history in the future, to show humanity, to teach them of past wrongs so they may create future rights – perhaps the archivist finds that the historical object they have carefully excavated, can not in fact speak, and if it speaks, no one listens.
What if this historical object’s tale of the past falls on the deaf ears of the present?
What if this object is dead, and has no life?