The picture tells of a mine disaster where German miners rescue French miners from a collapsing mineshaft. The story takes place in the Ruhr mining area (Lorraine region) along the border between France and Germany.
In the French part of the mine a fire breaks out and they try to contain the fire by building brick walls. The Germans continue to work on their side.
Nonetheless the fire gets out of control, causing an explosion that traps many French miners. In response, Wittkopp (Ernst Busch) appeals to his bosses to send a rescue team. As they ride out of town to help, the leader of the German rescue effort explains to his wife that the French are men with women and children and he would hope that they would come to his aid in similar circumstances.
Meanwhile, a trio of German miners breaks through a set of steel bars that mark the 1919 border. On the French side, an old retired miner (Alex Bernard) sneaks into the shaft hoping to rescue his young grandson (Pierre-Louis).
The miners forget their nationalities and past troubles and try to build a new camaraderie on the foundation of human solidarity.
The Germans successfully rescue the French miners, not without some interesting difficulties. After all the survivors are rescued, there's a big party with speeches about friendship between the French and Germans. The film shows a new idealistic unity between the miners, despite the political and nationalistic obstacles that still remain.
At the end, ironically, French officials rebuild the mining gate, and return to the status quo ante.
Pabst took an actual historical event, a mining accident in 1906 in Courrières, France, where rescue efforts were hampered by the lack of trained mine rescuers. Expert teams from Paris and Germany (miners from the Westphalia region) came to the assistance of the French miners. There were 1,099 fatalities, including children.
When the film was released in the United States in 1932, Mordaunt Hall, film critic for The New York Times, reviewed the film and liked the realism and the screenplay, writing, "[Kameradschaft is] one of the finest examples of realism that has come to the screen...[the] scenes in the mine are so real that one never thinks of them as being staged...[and] [t]hroughout the length of this tale of horror one feels as though one were permitted through some uncanny force to look into all parts of the mine...[and] all the noises and sounds are wonderfully natural.
The staff at Variety magazine also gave the film a positive review. They appreciated the direction, story, and cinematography, writing, "Pabst has made it a powerful recounting and accentuates more the happenings than the men...Photography and architecture are excellent and the sound is clear. Picture sometimes abrupt and there are some superfluous scenes but this is an outstanding film.