In 1930, World War I (then known as “The Great War”) was still fresh in the social memory of much of the world. Artists, poets, novelists, and newest of all, filmmakers were producing art that sought to make sense of the enormous cost of the war—or designate it as senseless. In 1929, German Novelist Erich Maria Remarque wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front” and one year later, Universal’s Carl Laemmle Jr. adapted the story into film. I have not read the source novel and went into the film cautious (as it's the oldest film on this year’s viewing list); I didn’t know what to expect and certainly didn’t think I would love it as much as I do.
The film begins in a classroom where a professor waxes on about the virtues of military service. We break away to glimpse at the military aspirations of several students before jumping forward into the reality of their grueling military training. By the time the boys reach the front lines, they are hungry, scared, and begin suffering casualties immediately. We spend so much time with the company as their mental state is worsened by bombardment, burnout, and boredom that I was almost rooting for them when they finally got a few licks in against the enemy—me only later remembering that the “enemy” was the Allied Powers (you know, us). The film continues down this dark path, pausing only temporarily to nourish the soldier’s (and thus, the audience’s) hunger and lust. Even then, we are constantly reminded of what these boys have lost and by the time the film’s most likable character, Stanislaus Katczinksy, suffers a major blow we’re emotionally and intellectually wrecked. 88 years later and the film still punches like a black and white Toy Story 3.
Perhaps in the similar vein to the “modernity-bias” I expressed after King Kong, I was shocked and delighted by how good this film was. I was enthralled by the film’s narrative genius, likely the result of expertly adapting the novel. For example, I loved the excellent use of props to symbolize the passage of time, disposition, and life (such as the decorative helmets yielding to practical ones, Kemmerich’s boots, the coffin defensive, and butterflies). I also liked how the film seemed to drift among its characters, only finding a real connection with the main character Paul as the 2nd Company begins to shrink and he is left as sort of "the last man standing".
Finally, I was thoroughly impressed by how well made the film was, even by the standards of modern technique. From excellent tracking shots, to the sound design (with constant shelling driving you to empathize fully with the maddening soldiers), to practical effects like dirt explosions, bunker shaking, building collapses, and those hands—those barb-wired, clasped hands. In fact, for me the weakest element of the film was the acting (over pronounced and often silly) but even then, there was enough character progression to keep you grounded and invested.
For all of the war scenes, the film’s greatest power was in portraying Paul’s “shell shocked” mental state in contrast to those at home, still bombastic and unsoiled by the horrors of war. It is in this way that the film reminds the audience that any latent, nationalist/militant attitudes are, and will forever be, accountable for the physical and emotional scars of every soldier sent to war. And to this effect, the film works and continues to work. Evidence of this can be seen in how fearful governments were of it: the film was banned in Australia, France, Italy, Austria and, of course, by Hitler’s Nazi party in Germany for its anti-war message. While these bans may have been lifted, the message continues. Thus, the film will remain forever an important “must watch” for anyone in consideration or support of a declaration of war.