– Christian Johannes Koch and Jonas Matuschek’s film homes in on the harsh but humanity-filled daily life of a group of miners who are about to lose their jobs

Review: Once We Were Pitmen

Selected for DOK.fest München, the Sāo Paolo International Film Festival and, more recently, the Solothurn Film Festival, where it’s in the running for the Audience Award, Once We Were Pitmen by the young directorial duo Christian Johannes Koch and Jonas Matuschek doesn’t pull any punches, revealing the small but decisive glimpses of light which illuminate their tough working lives in the mines. Discovered by audiences and critics alike by way of his acclaimed movie Spagat [+see also:
film review
interview: Christian Johannes Koch
film profile
, Christian Johannes Koch is stepping back behind the cameras with Jonas Matuschek, having both won the Berlinale Talents’ Kompagnon Fellowship in 2021. The result of this collaboration is a moving and humanity-filled portrait of a group of miners who have toiled away for years, only to find themselves faced with existential changes bringing unexpected results.

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Shot during a pivotal, tricky and nerve-wracking time, when the end of an era brings about changes which aren’t always easy to digest or accept, the protagonists of Once We Were Pitmen literally lay themselves bare in front of the cameras, freeing themselves from a now lead-weight armour. Forced to make their peace with exhausting shifts, these men who work in the shadows, confined for endless hours to the bowels of the earth, spend their days in groups, straining their bodies to unimaginable extents. But, despite the harsh nature of their work which consumes them body and mind, the solidarity, friendship and small, kind gestures which are part and parcel of their profession, lend the film’s protagonists the strength needed to carry on.

Punctuated by cathartic-style rituals – car journeys to the mine during which two colleagues and friends poke fun at one another, the inevitable collective bath which cleanses their bodies of coal dust, and the never-ending procession of hampers full of dirty clothes, stripped off by the miners after a hard day’s work – Koch and Matuschek’s first film turns reality into poetry of everyday life.

Black dust absorbed through their skin like venom, strident sounds, and muscular bodies growing increasingly heavy over the years are now just a thing of the past, because at the end of 2018 Germany decided to halt its coal extraction operations, leaving many miners redundant at home. It was a year marked by climate change protests, the famous Friday for the Future demonstrations. And it’s in this incandescent magma of major social events that Koch and Matuschek follow five miners in their distressing and poignant search, not just for a new job but also for a new purpose in life. Indeed, what remains of a life marked by days spent working underground where the light refuses to shine? What do you do with your life when the alarm clock no longer sounds?

In their own ways, the protagonists of Once We Were Pitmen try to find a goal, an objective to drive them forwards. They nurse vivid memories of a past characterised by hard work and solidarity between colleagues, of a kind which extends far beyond subterranean tunnels, but life still has a few wonderful surprises in store for our protagonists. The story of Martina, a trans woman who has decided to keep working in the mine, despite a transition which is anything but easy to explain to her colleagues, is particularly touching. Accepted by them in spite of everything, Martina tries to reconcile herself with the past in order to look to the future with serenity. Ultimately, Once We Were Pitmen is an aesthetically powerful film lit up by a gallery of complex and, let’s face it, really entertaining characters who are being reborn into a world which they no longer believed they belonged to.

Once We Were Pitmen is produced by Catpics, elemag pictures, SRF Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen and ZDF Zweites Deutsces Fernsehen.

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(Translated from Italian)

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