Wednesday, 19 March 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Country: USA
Based on: The 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: George Abbott & Maxwell Anderson
Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres
Length: 138 minutes

Seduced by the “glories” of war and zealous to defend the Fatherland, a group of young German enlistees have their illusions tragically crushed and find the post-war adjustment to everyday life nearly impossible. 

A veteran of the First World War, writer Erich Maria Remarque experienced firsthand the grim realities of war and the lonely, often misunderstood challenges of returning to "normal" life. As a result, he desired to draw public attention to post-traumatic stress disorder decades before it was given a name. Steven Spielberg cites the benchmark film as a key source of inspiration for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, and many of its most memorable scenes have influenced - or been copied outright - by other directors. After serial publication in the German newspaper Vossiche Zeitung in 1928, the novel was published as a book in 1929. Produced on a budget of $1.2 million, the film earned $3 million at the box office. The first "talkie" war film to win Oscars (Best Director, Outstanding Production), All Quiet on the Western Front was re-released in 1939 to remind audiences of the evils of war as World War I ramped up across the Atlantic. German screenings in the early 1930s were broken up by Nazis throwing mice and stink bombs into theatres. 

Despite his victory over the forces of evil, when Frodo Baggins returns to the Shire after going to hell and back in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he finds himself forever scarred, an empty shell of a hobbit no longer able to find joy in old comforts or consolation from neighbours unable to relate. Christopher Walken's Nick shares a similar fate in The Deer Hunter, as does Tom Cruise's Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July and Jeremy Renner's Sgt. James in The Hurt Locker. But before all of them came German private Paul Baumer, the man to whom every other cinematic soldier of misfortune owes a melancholy 21-gun salute. 

All Quiet on the Western Front is as relevant today as it was 84 years ago. Not merely because war is still very much with us but also because, as the film poignantly highlights, governments still struggle to adequately provide a soldier's basic needs, naive young minds still fall prey to dubious appeals to national pride, and wars are still predicated on the questionable objectives of businessmen and politicians safely removed from the battlefield. 

But it's Remarque's focus on the long-term psychological impact of war that makes the novel and film both groundbreaking and enduring. (For a more recent and personal take on the subject, read Kristi Anne Rasppery's heartbreaking article detailing her nightmarish struggle to reconnect with her Iraq war vet dad.) And by inviting us to explore a soldier's harrowing journey from the German point of view, the film forces us to reflect on our common humanity and the universality of fear and sacrifice.

Apart from its powerful psycho-social commentary, All Quiet is also a brilliant bit of storytelling. Opening on a classroom full of young men who take the bait and sign up for duty, the film then never leaves their side. We follow them through basic training, watch the traumas of war cement them into a band of brothers as if we ourselves are on the front lines. We march with them, fight with them, shiver and cry in claustrophobic bunkers beside them, and as a result, share in their madness and despair. The conspicuous absence of music throughout most of the film simultaneously builds suspense and honours our intelligence by allowing us to absorb the horror and heartbreak without any hokey, superfluous melodrama. 

Milestone knows when to take a breath, too. A midpoint supper conversation among the troops raises perennial questions about how wars get started and to what degree soldiers even comprehend what they are fighting for. “One country offends another,” posits one soldier. “What," another responds, "you mean there’s a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?” “Maybe it was the English," offers another. "I don’t want to shoot any Englishmen. I never saw one till I came over here.” “Well someone must have wanted it!” In the end, the boys conclude that wars are largely generated by politicians wanting to leave legacies and manufacturers wanting to get rich, and decide that the world's leaders should be corralled in a pen without weapons and forced to fight their own wars. Simplistic perhaps, but not far from the truth.

On the technical front, All Quiet is a marvel to behold. 42 minutes in, our boys watch helplessly from the trenches as airstrikes move closer and closer, followed by waves of enemy combatants whom they mow down in a blaze of machine gun fire before dispatching with rifle butts and bayonets. Between the scenes of carnage, the camera stops to capture the men's horrified screams and expressions: tragic snapshots of an entire generation forever ruined by a few minutes of senseless, outrageous violence. Few war films have been able to duplicate the raw and grizzly trauma of this, the first and arguably most realistic battle scene ever filmed. Indeed, I find it difficult to imagine how Milestone was able to achieve such cinematic realism, replete with explosions, close-ups, and unrestrained performances, without half of the cast actually dying. 

In the end, the film brings us back to the classroom where it all began. Paul's teacher asks the returning vet to encourage a fresh group of students to sign up for war, but he can't and is decried as a coward for insisting that  it's better to live and let live than to kill for some misplaced sense of national pride. In the end, he chooses to return to the front lines rather than live in a society that considers war glorious. In a bittersweet coda, Paul inadvertently seals his fate by reaching out from the trenches to touch a butterfly, a symbolic search for beauty in world poisoned by war. It's a perfect ending to a near-perfect film.

I am no fan of war and I generally don’t find watching movies about war, or ones loaded front to back with violence, entertaining. So you can imagine that, after reading the logline for All Quiet on the Western Front, I wasn't particularly fired up about watching this one. (Forgive the gun pun.)

However, this isn't a film that sensationalizes war. On the contrary, All Quiet is a staunchly anti-war film. If we have children, they will be watching this movie. I especially love that the writer chose to tell the story from the German point of view, forcing us to recognize the universal human impact (and therefore the madness) of war.

Oh, and by the way, it's not silent!! Endlich! Perfekt!

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