Saturday, January 16, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): Entertainment+Activism=Art (when all too often it doesn't...)

The first time I encountered Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, I was in Brooke Thompson’s 8th Grade Accelerated English class. The novel was the centerpiece of a unit on World War I, but I think if you polled my classmates, what we remembered most was probably thinking that a man named Kat was quite odd and endlessly laughing at the portmanteau “starshellfire”. Mind you, we also convinced Mrs. Thompson to let us view Strange Brew, claiming it was “a Civil War movie”, so it is easy to understand why a group of fourteen year olds would find a silly word and a man with a girl’s name the pinnacle of hilarity. We did, ultimately, read the novel, and were shown the 1979 made for TV version of the film. Sometime later, when I was expanding my knowledge of film, I learned that the 1930 original won the Best Picture Oscar, and two weeks ago, I finally got around to viewing Lewis Milestone’s film.

All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone
Starring: Lewis Wolheim, Lew Ayres
Studio: Universal

While Wings, released three years earlier, also was technically a “war film”, All Quiet on the Western Front is the first film to win Best Picture to examine the psychological and sociological effects of war on human beings. The characters in Wings, while suffering losses of their own, are afforded a happy ending, and there is no direct condemnation of WWI. From the first act of the film, Milestone establishes an arc that inevitably leads to tragedy and ultimate loss. So powerful and profound was the impact of All Quiet on the Western Front, that Variety (Hollywood’s insider magazine of record) heaped this unique praise on the film: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.”

Also, while the film was a hit in the United States, it was banned in Germany—for obvious reasons—(and in the brief time the film was shown in German cinemas, the Nazis took to releasing rats during some of the screenings of the film) but also in Austria, Italy, Australia and France (who in the film are villains). Oscar, for the most part, does not like to flirt with controversy, but the Academy will sometimes make a political statement with the films and performances choose to honor. With All Quiet on the Western Front, the quality of the film has endured far longer than the controversy it caused upon release. The early Academy voters did right here.

In the opening of the film, young German teenage boys are in a classroom, where their teacher essentially propagandizes all of them into joining the war effort for the glory of the “Fatherland” (and schools today get in an uproar when military recruiters hang out in a cafeteria, just imagine the outrage today if educators were part of the recruitment effort, as shown here). Each boy buys into the teacher's pitch, and these young men are soon off to the western front to fight for the Kaiser.

What follows is standard war movie fare. The recruits are tyrannized by a drill sergeant. When they finally do get to the front, total chaos ensues—there are shells exploding in every direction, the weather is shitty, men are injured and dying, the veteran soldiers could care less about them, and basic necessities like food always seem to be in short supply. Paul Baumer (Ayres), the main character, is soon taken under the wing of a wily veteran with a keen aptitude for survival. His name is Stanislaus Katczinsky—“Kat” for short (played by Louis Wolheim, who very much reminds me of Ernest Borgnine, who played the role in the 1979 version of the film)—and their friendship forms the primary relationship in the film.

Milestone is especially interested in the camaraderie amongst the soldiers. There are several subplots that show the inner workings of men at war. One excellent detail is there is a soldier who wears fancy boots when he arrives at the front. This soldier eventually has his legs amputated, and another soldier tactlessly remarks that his feet are the same size, implying that he is going to steal the boots. The boots are then passed on from soldier to soldier, with new owners for the boots coming after another man has succumbed to casualty.

Another subplot highlights some of the ridiculous military policies. After a major battle in the film, the company returns to camp very hungry. The cook has made enough for 150 men, but only 80 have returned (which gives the audience a very tangible way to show the human cost of the conflict). The cook claims he is under strict orders to give the men a lone portion, but the battle-weary soldiers demand a feast, also pointing out the pointlessness of wasting the food. The cook blithely sticks to his orders, and a near riot ensues before an officer arrives and orders the cook to feed the men until the food is gone. The soldiers fight not only in the trenches, but also against inane policy.

The script offers time for the men to reflect on their situation. They hold nearly unanimous animosity to their superiors and to the war itself. (Interestingly, none of the soldiers outright blame their French enemies.) None of them can even point out a reason as to why they are fighting. Some say that the war is simply happening to keep the munitions manufacturers in business. Others simply say the government is greedy. Kat, when asked, says that the best way to solve the conflict would be to rope off a section of a battlefield, line of the heads of government on either side, then have them fight it out. This is where the script most directly deals with criticisms of war, but instead of it feeling as if the filmmakers are lecturing the audience, we have come to care enough about Paul, Kat, and the rest of the company to know what their perspective on the conflict is.

Throughout the film, the soldiers are subjected to horrors. They suffer nightmares, uncontrollable shaking, rats have plagued their camps, many soldiers are opportunistic and steal from one another, they die in one another’s arms and more than anything, there is no place where it is truly safe or somewhere to go to feel relief. Constantly being on guard forces the men to live in a heightened state of despair. Paul though, becomes ultimately disillusioned when he has to kill a French soldier face to face in a trench. He immediately tries to save him, but is obviously unsuccessful, and begs the dead man for forgiveness. It is at this point in the film where the war goes from being a global conflict to an intensely personal one. Paul knows he could have very easily been the slain soldier, and Ayres’ performance takes on a haunted quality thereafter. He slouches, mumbles, loses his composure—it is as if Ayres knows that Paul has irrevocably lost a piece of his soul after he is forced to kill the French soldier. Ayres plays Paul as a shell of a man from that scene forward.

The final act of All Quiet on the Western Front has Paul return to his village on furlough. Throughout his stay, he is recalcitrant to warm up to anyone—even his own mother—and longs to return to the battlefield with Kat and the other men in the company. Paul happens to walk by the classroom of his old teacher, giving the same recruitment spiel to an entirely new batch of young men. The teacher is eager to have Paul speak to the boys, thinking Paul will help to win the boys over to the cause of the Fatherland, but Paul speaks the truth. He says there is no glory in the war, and he wishes he could go back and tell himself, sitting in the classroom, to not enlist. The boys decry Paul, calling him a coward to his face, when Paul is anything but cowardly. I thought that was especially powerful, because Milestone shows the soldiers doing many things—good and awful—but the soldiers at the front are never cowardly. I felt sorry for the young men Paul was speaking to—he is telling them the truth, but they are so deluded by the teacher’s propaganda that they can’t see how brave Paul truly is. They will simply become the next batch of recruits to become disillusioned, and there is another batch that will follow them.

The final shot—which I won’t spoil here—is the most famous image from the film. In one moment, Milestone is able to capture the loss of innocence.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a remarkable achievement. The battle sequences are amazingly advanced and realistic looking—despite the film being seven decades old. If the battle scenes were spliced into say—Saving Private Ryan (and Steven Spielberg said himself that Milestone’s film was an enormous influence on his acclaimed WWII picture)—they wouldn’t look out of place. Even one of the current Oscar frontrunners—The Hurt Locker—owes a serious debt to Milestone’s film, especially in the modern films focus on the day-today life of the soldiers in Iraq, and how the characters in that film emerge just as shaken from their conflict as Paul Baumer does from WWII.

I also really appreciated that All Quiet on the Western Front told its story from the German side of the war. All too often, the Germans are depicted as villains or Nazis on film (and many times cartoonishly so), and while I’ll be the first to admit that Nazis and Germans make fantastic film villains (would the Indiana Jones pictures or Inglourious Basterds be nearly as entertaining without them?), audiences are rarely reminded that Germany paid a human toll in their conflicts. I don’t think Milestone is out to sympathize with Germany in WWI, but to show that the German soldiers paid just as dear of a cost as the French, Americans, or any other nation in the conflict.

I think Variety’s praise of All Quiet on the Western Front (“The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.”), while an utterly noble sentiment, is also a fallacy. I don’t think any single film is so powerful it could eliminate war. Nor do I really think that human beings have the capacity to eliminate war and conflict on our planet. I also think that often, when a feature film tries too hard to hammer home a moral agenda, a political ideal, or the point of view of an activist it is doomed to fail as entertainment.

With All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone and especially Lew Ayres (who subsequently became a conscientious objector to WWII and had his acting career suffer for it) successfully merge entertainment and activism into art. That is a rare quality indeed, and I’m sure this important film will lose none of its potency in the next 70 years. I’m glad I have evolved past being an immature fourteen year-old and can truly appreciate this picture.

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