Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The Best Picture Countdown #3: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Note: This post is modified from a previously published post
Director: Lewis Millestone
Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim
Very few films really succeed at being anti-war (and, strangely, many of those that do seem to be set during World War I), and All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best examples of a film that depicts the horror of war not through excessive gore but through the humanity of its characters. Anyone who has read Erich Maria Remarque’s novel will be familiar with the power of this story, which isn’t much changed in the transition from page to screen. The final shot of the film, with the now dead soldiers looking back at us superimposed over a field covered with grave markers, is one of the most searing and effective indictments I’ve ever seen of the socio-political machinery that makes war seem not only necessary, but also seductive.
The film begins with teenage Paul (Lew Ayres) in school, where his class is whipped into a patriotic frenzy by their teacher, who takes the boys to enlist in the army. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into and we see shot after shot of hysterical boys already imagining the roles they’ll play in their romanticized vision of war. Once enlisted, Paul becomes friends with Kat Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), a man who knows how to get around, especially when it comes to black market goods. One by one, Paul watches his friends die needlessly while experiencing the harsh realities of trench life, which includes having inadequate equipment and insufficient food (some of the fiercest fighting in the film is between the soldiers and their mess cook). He becomes disillusioned with the war, but a leave which allows him to go home offers no respite. People congratulate him on doing his duty, telling him that they don’t mind going without because they know that the food they aren’t eating is going to the soldiers at the front. The way that Ayres plays these scenes is brilliant and makes Paul’s eventual death seem less like tragedy and more like relief. He could never have come back to live with these people who experience a reality so completely divorced from the one that he himself knows.
Paul returns to his former classroom and is asked to address the students, but instead of loading them up with romantic tales, he says: “You still think it’s beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it’s better not to die at all.” He’s asked to leave and returns to the front where he finally feels at home among his comrades, relaxed in a way that he could never achieve when he was with his family. More friends die, including Kat and then Paul himself, who in his final moments reaches out of his trench in an attempt to catch a butterfly in his hand.
Much of the film is spent examining the political schema from which the war resulted as it is seen by soldiers at the front. When one explains that wars begin when one country offends another, a comrade breaks in, saying, “How could one country offend another? You mean there’s a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?” They understand that they’re fighting for Germany because it’s their homeland, but they don’t understand why Germany is fighting and what the country will gain from the war. But Kat gets it. “At the next war let all the Kaisers, presidents and generals and diplomats go into a big field and fight it out first among themselves. That will satisfy us and keep us home.” This isn’t a war between countries; it’s a war between leaders who will sit far removed from the frontlines while the lifeblood of their nations is needlessly shed. The heart of the film is this examination of the nature of class in regards to war, with the upper classes getting into a dispute and sacrificing the lower classes to settle it; but its soul is in the relationships between the soldiers.
What is most amazing about this film is the way that it is still so affecting. It was made in late 1929 and early 1930 and given all the technological advances of the ensuing decades, it should look dated by now but it doesn’t. The battle scenes remain intense and realistic, with the camera in some cases filming from the point of view of the ground or the trench. These shots are terrifying, instilling in us a sense of confusion and fear that puts us right there. In addition to these very intimate shots, director Lewis Millestone also employs a variety of long shots and tracking shots which are wonderfully crafted.
All Quiet on the Western Front may be the best war film ever made because it so completely succeeds at what it sets out to do. The title card at the beginning informs us that this is not “an adventure” and it isn’t, though it easily could have been. Instead it provides us with a grim, harrowing look at the desperation, disillusionment and pointlessness of war. You will never watch any other war film the same way after seeing this one.