"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 2, 2011

"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) (Film review)

It would be good if anti-war films really could prevent wars. But no, when All Quiet on the Western Front was made about WWI, which had just ended 12 years before, Europe's nations were already gearing up for a second round which would break out in less than 10 year's time (those wars together killed 60 million people; in the first half of the 20th century "cultured" Europe was in fact the most murderous place the world has ever known). In many countries this film was forbidden until far in the sixties, as if authorities were afraid of its message.

That problem didn't exist in 1914. War was greeted with enthusiasm everywhere in Europe, people danced in the streets for joy: it meant being free from school or factory labor. War was seen as a holiday of a couple of weeks, at most months. Fun to hold a gun! But Europe's youth was in for a nasty surprise: four long years they would be suffering hell in muddy trenches, exposed to constant fire of cannon and grenades. The military tactics were still from the 19th century (storming the position of the opponent), but the weapons were so terrible that these antiquated strategies only meant total carnage (as already experienced in the American Civil War, and the war of 1905 between Japan and Russia in North-eastern China). Between 1914 and 1918, in Europe, a whole generation of young men was wiped out, starting the glide towards lesser relevance of the continent in the world.

All Quiet on the Western Front is based on German author Erich Remarque’s novel of the same name and was made in 1930 in Hollywood by director Lewis Milestone. The muddy fields of northern France were recreated in the outskirts of Los Angeles and thanks to the help of war veterans the film manages to be very realistic in the war scenes. The story follows a group of young men, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) and his friends Kropp, Leer, and Kemmerick, as they allow themselves to be urged by their jingoistic teacher to quit school and go as volunteers to the front. They get their first negative experience at boot camp where the previously so modest janitor of their school now acts as sadistic sergeant.

When they arrive at the front, the real horror show starts:
  • there is a severe shortage of supplies, especially food;
  • on their first mission, to string barbed wire, one of the boys is blinded by shell fire and then killed as he mistakenly runs towards the enemy lines;
  • the soldiers have to cope with an invasion by rats;
  • many suffer from sleeplessness and homesickness and have nervous breakdowns;
  • there are endlessly long days of continued bombing and machine gun fire from the enemy side;
  • when they get out of the trenches and storm each other's lines, Milestone shows with crane shots how the soldiers fall like dominoes and how thousands of dead bodies lie in the mud - but as the battle lines go back and forth, at the end of the day both sides are still stuck in the same trenches - proving how pointless this war is;
  • we see how a soldier is blown to smithereens by a grenade, only his hands are left gripping barbed wire;
  • when Paul has killed a French soldier he watches the painful agony of the dying man and feels deeply sorry, the more so when he also finds photos of the man's wife and children in his pocket;
  • the soldiers experience a growing sense of futility; when Paul returns home on leave and is asked to give a speech at his old school, he tells the truth about life in the trenches, and therefore is called a coward by the people in his hometown.
I almost desperately wanted to love this film, for it has an important message. But despite the realism of the battle scenes, I felt the film as a whole was too stiff and old-fashioned. The actors are remarkably inept, almost on the level of an amateur theater society. As a viewer, I could not feel involved in the story nor in the characters.

But the end was impressive: in the last days of the war, Paul is killed by an enemy sniper when he reaches out of the trenches to look at a butterfly. Then we see a field with crosses and a ghostly march of the dead, looking full of reproach at us, the viewers...