ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

It’s no secret that I am not a huge fan of A. black and white films, B. old films, and C. films about war. I wasn’t thrilled going into the viewing of this feature. At one point, though, I made a comment to Mouse that summarizes how I feel about this film and it’s significance. I was looking at Paul, the protagonist, who we follow as he goes from a young German man in school to a soldier on the frontlines in World War I. He enlists at the urging of his esteemed professor and classmates in an effort to valiantly serve his country – but a few years in, he learns all too well the futility and brutality of war. In one scene, I looked at his countenance and said, “He could be a young man today – as he was cast, he could be a modern soldier.

That is why this film, based on the renown book with the same title, is relevant. It depicts the relationships formed between the enlisted with heart and sensitivity. While the frontlines as they once were don’t exist in the modern theater of war in the same way much of the time, the violence of artillery and bombs and grenades is as shocking and jarring now as it was then. We remain engaged in a war in Afghanistan that has needlessly claimed lives and is, for all intents and purposes, going nowhere. So while this film is old, and in black and white, and set in another country, it hardly feels dated.

This is indeed an old one, only the second Best Picture with sound and third winner overall. As such, I was particularly keen on seeing how the technical aspects of the film were handled. I find the transition to sound an interesting phenomenon. As I’ve understood the story, the introduction of sound necessitated a whole new batch of technology, the handling of which had a deleterious effect on other aspects of filmmaking, particularly cinematography. I’ve tended to imagine sound films of this era as primitive curiosities, more like stage plays with a camera rolling, with the settings in interiors or soundstages clearly recognizable as such. In this, All Quiet On The Western Front exceeded my expectations. Yes, it had the uneven, noisy sound and sometimes choppy editing of those early talkies, but the camera wasn’t nearly as static as I’d imagined it being. Did I have an exaggerated idea of what this era of film was like? Had the industry already adapted at this point to the technology of synchronized sound? This film was, after all, ostensibly superior to all others that year and may not be fairly representative of the industry as a whole. To my recollection, this is the earliest talkie I’ve seen and so have little to compare it.

This is not to say I’d mistake All Quiet On The Western Front for a modern movie, just that the filmmakers handled the technical limitations of the medium better than I would have guessed. Watching the film, it was clear that scenes were either “sound scenes” with synchronization, or larger, more dynamic outdoor shots with more action and sound effects presumably added later, and the two were not really integrated well. This is why the battle scenes tend to get boring as they become a hard to follow sequence of men running and shooting without refocusing the audiences attention on the individuals’ experiences. Also noticeably absent: music. It may be apocryphal, but I’ve heard that filmmakers in the first couple years of talkies didn’t score the films because they feared there would be confusion over why the audience could hear music that the characters apparently could not.

While I felt the movie did a better than expected job handling technical limitations, acting styles were still finding their footing. This is the most decidedly “stagey” aspect of the movie. Most of the time, actors seem to take turns delivering their lines rather than talking to each other. It’s not necessarily bad acting, it just comes across as a little unnatural.

Ah, good point. I think part of me just assumed that was the way people interacted with one another in World War I, or in Germany at that time in general, but of course that doesn’t make sense. Now, I would like to point out that there are no female leads in this feature. There are women in a few scenes – a few French women who capture the interest of our German troops as they are bathing, and trade a night of their company for some sausage (hehe) as well as some bread that apparently was unharmed even after being completely submerged. Paul, our lead, seems quite taken with one of them, actually – and the exchange between the two of them, though hampered by a language barrier, is still infused with some amount of short-term, passionate love. Who’s to say a one night stand, wurst-driven, can’t be romantic?

There is another scene with Paul’s mother and sister. Both seem overjoyed at his return home on leave, and very removed from the harsh realities of battle. It’s not really Paul’s place to  explain the horrors he has seen to them, but he does clearly feel a great distance due to the atrocities he has experienced in his time away. Looking at Paul through his mother’s ailing eyes as she is dying on his return, the audience can see how truly pointless sending young men off to fight year after year truly is. Again, a timeless message.

If there’s one thing this movie and its source novel are known for is their unambiguous anti-war message, one worth considering in the context of their time. I discussed cultural attitudes toward the First World War in our Wings entry. For most modern Americans, it’s a historical footnote. The people who lived through it called it The Great War and it was an event as unforeseen as it was devastating. It shattered the Western world’s image of itself. Unlike the Second World War that has displaced it in cultural memory, it wasn’t a war over ideology, or really over anything that most people cared about. Unsurprisingly, the fiction it inspired was usually bleak sometimes to the point of being accusatory. All Quiet On The Western Front stands alongside The Big Parade and in a body of work from a generation that saw war itself as the ultimate evil.

And here I am watching film footage of people living in the shadow of this catastrophe, people who in their time created stories about their Great War in the sincere hope that it would be the last, who never would have guessed that another World War would commence within nine years. It was a different world.

Something I noticed while watching is that if Paul and his comrades-in-arms are like brothers, they have a succession of older men who are like proxy fathers, primarily Himmelstoss and Kat. Himmelstoss, their drill instructor in training, is an unsympathetic martinet. Although a non-commissioned officer, he could represent the generals of the war who seemed oblivious to the suffering of the men who served under them. Despite his posturing, he has no taste for combat. Kat, his foil, is an older soldier the young men meet once they arrive at the front. He is gruff and unsentimental, but he teaches them how to survive and fight in the trenches. Kat’s real talent, though, is scrounging. His ability to get his hands on food, through means permissible or not, is something of a running joke. But in this, he is fulfilling his role as a father, not just as teacher, but as provider.

I liked All Quiet On The Western Front. It’s a faithful adaptation of a classic anti-war novel. Yes, it does show its age upon modern viewing, but is less primitive seeming than I would have guessed. It leaves me all the more curious to see our only one earlier talkie, The Broadway Melody.

Also nominated in 1930:
The Big House
Disreali
The Divorcee
The Love Parade

Next film: YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)

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