‘I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.’
This quote is from the belly of veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s unflinching novel of a young soldier’s experiences on the front lines of World War I. All Quiet on the Western Front shocked readers upon release in 1929 with its pessimism, brutality and honesty, and as the cursed Hayes Code was still half a decade away, Lewis Milestone’s adaption was enabled to faithfully depict Paul Bäumer’s (Lew Ayres) story.
Guts and gore are front and centre in shocking clarity as limbs are lost amid cataclysmic shelling and characters meet abrupt and unkind endings. Without a doubt, All Quiet On The Western Front is one of the most graphic film of its time. But the remarkable and enduring nature of Remarque’s novel, and Milestone’s adaption, is an exploration deeper than physical trauma in to scarring which disfigured a generation.
World War I ushered in conflict on a scale and duration unseen before, the capability and sophistication of the weapons alone transformed warfare indefinitely. Psychological conditions such as PTSD were largely misunderstood during the conflict and often mistaken for cowardice. All Quiet on The Western Front delves in to the genesis of the debilitating conditions from Remarque’s personal encounters and the ubiquitous affliction citizens dealt with in fathers and sons that returned home.
In one scene, the soldiers collect in a bunker during another stretch on the front. Sleep is impossible, advancement unthinkable, so instead round after round of cards are played as a distraction from ceaseless bombardment and ravenous rats stealing measly rations. Each near miss sends a tremor through the earth and the men, pushing them ever closer to breaking point.
Imagining the constant sickening fear of the soldiers is almost impossible, but Milestone forces us to endure inexorable fulminations by abstaining from music. Sprawling sequences of advancements through barbed wire and machine gun fire into enemy trenches are played only to the beat of grenades and shells. Only in moments of silence does it become clear how disorientating and maddening this atmosphere is.
The affects of this existence are difficult to appreciate in such alien conditions as bullet ridden trenches, but All Quiet On The Western Front illuminates psychological transformations as Paul returns home on leave. On this visit, Paul is distanced from his home, finding it lacklustre and naive. Upon returning to his school, he discovers his teacher preaching the same false promises to new students in a mirroring of the opening scene. Paul’s teacher enthusiastically asks him to share his glorious experiences, but instead, Paul monologues an honesty close to blasphemy.
A general confusion towards the sentiment of the picture prevailed, but it was released at a time when borders and relations were fragile. During its short lived run in Germany, Nazi rabble rousers released rats and stink bombs in theatres as sour feelings of defeat still ran deep. Finally, Wilhelm Frick, the Nazi Minister of the Interior, banned the picture allegedly for portraying German cowardice. Ironically, Poland censored the picture for being pro-German, whilst it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Remarque’s novel was not intended to damn those involved, but to damn war itself. Thus, it was not a novel of glory, but futility. His characters were boys, not heroes. They had no grand aim, no great deeds, and did nothing to further the war. They were innocents sold a lie and reduced to a hollowed instinct of survival. Milestone did not cut the soul of the book, he compounded this philosophy, sparing no opportunity to validate the picture. He even hired German Veterans in the Los Angeles area to play officers, drill actors and authenticate the picture.
All Quiet On The Western Front holds its place as a harrowing picture, not because of gore far outmatched in modern depictions, but because it tortures very human characters. They are innocent boys denied gradual maturity, and instead leap to jaded and cynical men. But their wisdom does not open grand philosophising or eloquent solutions to their situation, they talk emotionally, poignantly and from a restricted point of view.
In one scene, the boys discuss the perplexing topic of how a war actually begins. Some remark that they had never even met a Frenchman to be mad at until they killed one. Why should they fight the war without knowing why? Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) offers a solution, ’On the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put ’em in the centre dressed in their underpants, and let ’em fight it out with clubs.’ Despite being told humorously to keep spirits high, this tender moment rings with truth and an undeniable logic.
There is one draw back I feel compelled to mention: a general air of uncomfortableness with the new technology of sound. Certain passages, lifted from the novel verbatim, are fascinating as internal monologue in the novel, but as exterior dialogue it does not flow. Thought this easily could have been solved by adding narration. Further, many of the actors deliver a poignant performance in body language, but the voice does not synchronise emotionally with the expression. It is an inconsistent phenomenon, and understandable as silent picture training echoed into the modern filmmaking.
All Quiet On The Western Front is a classic and essential piece of cinematic history for its form and its place in time. As the opening states ‘‘This story is neither an accusation not a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by war’. War was explored openly, and it addressed a generation lost to catastrophe. But the true tragedy is that All Quiet On The Western Front premiered less than a decade before the bloodiest war known to mankind ignited. And the senselessness began again.
Paul waits endlessly on the front lines once again. The vast waste of no man’s land is now his true home after facing a return to his small town. Bombs echo in the distance and silence rules between the men. But Paul is awoken from deep thought by a butterfly. With a smile, Paul reaches for the symbol, unaware of the sniper aiming. As the hand stretches for the fragile creature, a crack of a rifle echoes and the hand falls dead.