Saturday, March 27, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front

"...Now they're sending babies, and they won't last a week! I shouldn't have come on leave. Up at the front you're alive or you're dead and that's all. You can't fool anybody about that very long. And up there we know we're lost and done for whether we're dead or alive. Three years we've had of it, four years! And every day a year, and every night a century! And our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are clay, and we sleep and eat with death! And we're done for because you can't live that way and keep anything inside you! I shouldn't have come on leave. I'll go back tomorrow." --Paul Bäumer to his old professor (All Quiet on the Western Front)

Dark, depressing, and utterly morbid, this film is as far from The Broadway Melody as I could get.  I don’t really like war movies, and the film quality wasn't great, but I ended up actually enjoying the film.  As much as I can enjoy a film about the hopelessness of war and the death of everyone involved.  As an anti-war film, it serves as a poignant reminder of the casualties of war that is still extremely relevant today.

The Plot
The plot in this movie is less linear, and more a series of vignettes in the story of the life of a man named Paul
Bäumer, played by Lew Ayres.  In 1914, parades line the streets of Germany, and a classroom of eager young men listen to their idealistic professor wax lyrical on the glories of dying for their country.  The young men rise as a class and enlist, along with the other men of their town, including their friend, the postman.

The young men head to training camp, only to find their friend, the postman, is now their pompous, tyrannical training officer named Corporal Himmelstoss.  The boys are put through their paces, until they are finally deployed to the Western Front Line, although not before they finally revenge themselves on the evil postman.  They are shipped out the Front, only to find there is no food, no rules, and men dying all around them.   They meet Corporal Katczinsky, or Kat, played by Louis Wolheim,and the other few veterans in the 2nd Company, who proceed to show these untried recruits the ropes of survival.  One of their class died after being horrifically blinded, and all the new recruits are upset.

The next we see the remaining recruits, they are huddled in an underground bunker, with no food, bombs exploding all around them, and only rats for company.  Paul is managing after a week of little sleep or food, but many of his friends are having psychotic breaks.  Kat must start punching them and knocking them out to save them from running out into the gunfire.  One recruit, Kemmerich, breaks free and runs out, only to be shot down and wounded.  Suddenly, there is a break in the bombing and the men rush out to fight.  Men run forward to be killed on both sides, and all the audience sees are men running into machine guns.  Many enemy men are killed, but the Germans are unable to hold the French front, and must retreat.

They return to camp, only to see the cook refusing to feed them because he has cooked the wrong rations; he's made food for 150 men, but only 80 have returned.  Eventually fed and full, the members of the 2nd Company stretch out under the trees, debating the cause of the war.  Paul and another recruit, Mueller, try to give the philosophical reasons, but these are met with the very practical reasoning of the lower class veterans.

The recruits decide to visit Kemmerich at the dressing ward.  He has just finished surgery, and does not yet realize, until he friends tell him, that he has lost his leg.  Mueller thoughtlessly asks Kemmerich if he can have his boots, as it is clear Kemmerich will not be using them.  Paul stays with Kemmerich, and as he lays dying, he tells Paul that Mueller can have his boots, and Paul his watch.  Paul leaves the ward at a run, Kemmerich’s death leaving him strangely energized and hungry.  Mueller is excited about the boots, claiming that he “won’t mind returning to the front with such fine boots.”

In later scenes, Mueller is killed, and his boots are passed along amongst the group of steadily dwindling soldiers.  Paul remains alive, and grows as cynical as the veterans.  Corporal Himmelstoss comes to Front, only to be laughed at for his pomposity and then spurned for his cowardice.  Paul kills a French soldier, but then tries to save him, crying bitterly when he fails.  When he finally leaves the ditch he had been hiding in, he is comforted by his friends and joins in a round of drinking.  While bathing in a pond, Paul and his friend see French women, and seduce them with food.  Paul tells the woman that he will never forgot her, even if he would never recognize her.

Paul is finally wounded and taken to a hospital with his friend Albert.  While Paul pulls through, Albert has his leg amputated, and is destroyed by pain and sorrow.  Paul gets a furlough and goes home only to find lunacy reigns.  His father discusses impossible war policies with the other old men, and his old teacher is still recruiting young boys with his idealistic garbage.  Paul tries to explain that dying for one’s country is painful and dirty but no one listens or understands.  Only his mother brings him peace, though she lays dying in her bed.  But even she continues to see Paul as the child he no longer is.  Paul leaves a few days early, disgusted and out of place.

Paul returns to the camp, where all of those he joined with are no longer.  One of the veterans, Tjaden, is teaching new recruits the ropes, only these boys are 16 and 15, younger than the 19 he had been.  Paul goes in search of Kat, who is foraging for food, and he tells Kat of his disillusionment with home.  Just as he is calling Kat his one true friend, a bomb goes off and Kat is hit in the shin.  Paul boosts Kat on his shoulders and begins carrying him back, telling him of all the time they will spend together after the war, not realizing that Kat has taken stray shrapnel to the head.  When he gets to the camp, the doctors tells him why he shouldn’t have bothered, and go back to playing cards.  Paul goes back to the front, and while crouched with a gun in a trench, he sees a butterfly.  As he reaches out to catch the butterfly (he used to collect them at home), he puts himself in harm’s way, and gets picked off by an enemy sniper.

The History
All Quiet on the Western Front was first a novel written by German author Eric Maria Remarque.  Remarque, a German veteran of World War I, wrote the novel in 1927 and was published in January, 1929.  Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal studios, was annoyed that his studio had yet to even win a nomination. 
He poured $1.2 million dollars into making the hit novel into a film (a very large sum for those days) and released the movie in April, 1930. Director Lewis Milestone consulted with real German war veterans who had immigrated to the United States in order to make sure the war scenes were authentic and ended up using them as extras in the movie.  His quest for authenticity led him to leave out music from the movie completely but caused the chief sanity inspector of Orange County, California, to halt production for the day while he checked the conditions of the trenches.  The movie was nominated for “Best Picture,” “Best Director,” “Best Writing,” and “Best Cinematography” and won the first two.  

While a success at the box office, this movie caused controversy in many ways.  On the one hand, the American Legion threatened to picket  because of its sympathetic treatment of Germans, on the other, Nazis released rats into the theaters showing the movie in Germany, because of its negative treatment of  German war.  The film would later be banned in Germany and Italy for its stance against war, and banned in Poland for its pro-German plot.  The film had such a profound impact on Lew Ayres, the young star of the film, that he asked to be placed in the Medical Corps when he was drafted during World War II.  His request was denied, so he sought and obtained "conscientious objector" status.  People began boycotting his films in protest, but Ayres's request was finally granted and he served quietly in the Medical Corps for the remainder of the war.

This movie was #7 on AFI's List of Top 10 Epics and #54 on their 1998 list of Top 100 movies.  It was remade for TV in 1979 and there are rumors that there are plans to remake it again for the big screen in the next few years.  It is remembered as a true epic war film, one that is sited by many actors and directors as a major influence for the big war movies of today.

The Verdict?
I thankfully know nothing of war and death the way this movie describes it.  It is hard to say what is right and what is wrong.  I told my father that I support draft dodgers.  If you don't want to fight, you shouldn't.  "But what if everyone said that," he replied, "what if no one wanted to fight?  Who would defend our country?"  I replied that it is not defending one's country to get embroiled in a war overseas that will never affect us--but then I stopped myself.  We as a country entered wars because we did see threats against our safety.  Against Al Qaeda, against Communism.  Arguments can be made for both sides.  Who is to say what affects us and what doesn't?  I know that I am not clever enough to decide the fate of millions and that I can only have confidence in those I have chosen to make those decisions for me.  I wish I had more confidence than I do.  And as a woman, if there is a draft, will I ever have to worry as Paul does?  Probably not.  I would worry in different ways, as the French women in this movie do who have no food, no men, and no land.

My father, a man who loves books and movies about war, disliked this movie when he watched it with me.  He thought it was dark, long, and depressing.  "It's a war movie," I replied heatedly, "it's supposed to be depressing!"  But it is not depressing the way Wings is depressing, or even more recent movies like Braveheart or Pearl Harbor.  It is depressing because it shows the futility of war, the purposeless of it.  All Quiet on the Western Front shows good men and bad men dying for no reason, killing men who aren't evil and just waiting for others to end the war.  It is depressing because it provides unanswered questions that linger long after the movie is finished.  Who am I fighting?  Why am I fighting?  Where does the onrush of death end?  Who, really, has any answers?  


This movie causes one to question violence by attaching the audience to characters that are killed with little warning or reason.  It is the pointlessness of it all that causes the melancholy after the film finishes.  Yes, it is dark and depressing, but its message is so important, even today.  Good literature, films and other media cause good people to ask questions even after they are through.  And that's what this movie does, and why it's my favorite film to date.  Who would have thought that?
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