November 12, 2006

A Film for Remembrance Sunday: All Quiet on the Western Front

The First World War has become synonomous with mindless slaughter- the great war poets Sassoon, Owen and Isaac Rosenberg made sure of that but so did a great run of plays and films starting with classics like Journey's End and running up to the present day in the recent Audrey Tautou Film, A Very Long Engagement. First amongst those films must be All Quiet on the Western Front. This film functions in its first part to describe a common experience of the first world war, the calling up of a brigade of friends from one school to the front line (in Britain the technique led to the forming of pals' battalions)- through the camaraderie of the young soldiers just arrived at the front we see the horror of the events unfolding around them- screams in the night become much more visceral when they shock a classmate who'd never seen those screams before than when they shock a stranger. Deaths become much more serious when they are the deaths of a friend. Seeing the soldiers leap onto each other as they go into convulsions, watching this anonymous group change from schoolboys exhilerated by populist rhetoric into individuals faced with the trauma of war remains a terrifying spectacle- in that sense this film reverses Sartre's later truism that hell is other people, hell in this war is the mind abandoned to its own resources. Hell as a later machine gunning sequence makes clear is individuality reduced to anonymity in a vast group- hell is the destruction of personal links and ties- the mockery of the pals' brigades exposed for all its sham.

Its the little details which make this film so compelling in its description of the war- the way for instance the guys just out of school can't understand their teaching as useful- afterall it doesn't show you says one that if you bayonet a man in the ribs it sticks whereas in his belly you can remove the bayonet. The way that when the men charge they charge through normal countryside and houses and wicker fences are blown sky high by shells. The way that the men talk about what makes a war, come to a pacifist conclusion but then stop each other deserting. The way that they try to rob even from their wounded comrades to make their own appalling lives better. The shooting of the film can be close, giving the feeling for instance of hiding in a hole by showing the soldiers leaping over the hole through the hole in the ground or showing shells explode like fireworks. One of the most convincing scenes is that I've taken the still from above, where a soldier rebukes another for dieing and not dieing at the same moment, alternating between comforting him and calling upon him to die now and then at the end talking to a corpse and asking its forgiveness.

This is a great pacifist film as other websites have already said- but in part its strength is because it begins as the film develops to focus more and more on one character. As the war continues, the number of characters thin out and gradually we are reduced to one particular soldier, who gives voice towards the end of the film to the pacifist feeling that inspires the whole piece.

I'd direct everyone to the comments as well where Political Umpire leaves a couple of fascinating comments, and both he and Dreadnought leave lists of other good war films.


Political Umpire said...

One of the greatest films I've ever seen, and also one of the greatest cinematic experiences as I went to the special presentation by the Imperial War Museum at the National Film Theatre a few years ago. They showed a restored version made by the Library of Congress. It was a good reminder that America with its resources can do things other countries cannot: a spokesman from the Library gave a speech as to how the film had been put together, and the amount of resources was just unreal. Much of the work was in restoring the original soundtrack; earlier versions were pretty dire in that respect.

Interestingly, the battle sequences were shot silently to begin with, but 'talkies' were just catching on at the time and so they went back and recorded the sound to dub over. The method used was pretty authentic (and had to be, given the state of 'special effects' at the time): they got the local national guard along to fire their artillery pieces, which were WWI vintage anyway. Indeed, one of the drill sergeants in the training scenes was a German immigrant who had performed exactly the same role during the war itself.

Two things are striking about the battle scenes compared with almost every war film made since: first, the sound of the shells - a high pitched whistling noise - and second, the sight of their impact. In modern films one sees petrol bombs going off with loud and spectacular results; in All Quiet one sees a slight explosion with a 'crump' sound and the ground shaking.

Other differences between the Library of Congress version and a few others I've seen (I had to go to Amazon USA to get a copy on DvD, and mine is definitely inferior, which winds me up no end) is that the cheesy, tedious dramatic music is removed from the beginning, and the quote from Remark's book (about the film not being an adventure, and that its purpose is to tell the story of the generation destroyed by the war even though they survived its shells) is displayed at the start.

One other point of interest in the presentation was the showing of original WWI footage. Most of what presented nowadays as 'contemporary' footage is actually 'reconstructions', albeit done at the time by serving soldiers quite near the line. A good rule of thumb in trying to determine whether footage is actual or reconstructed is to ask where the cameraman would have been: if he's above the trenches, close to the action and with men falling around him, you can assume it's a reconstruction(!) The real footage we were shown, of an attack on the Somme, just shows some figures running in the distance (therefore not very exciting for a tv audience, and rarely shown in consequence). Some of the real footage showed not only how accurate All Quiet's war footage is, but also how it played out themes of central concern at the time. For example, there is a scene in the film where the soliders complain about their food and mention specifically the bread that the other side are enjoying - that was a point of propaganda on the allied side (indeed, the US soldiers were known as 'doughboys' because of it).

Secondly we were shown some of the cartoons made around that time - very sardonic, dare I say it modern, humour involved.

Third, a pacifist film made in the early 30s was shown. It showed a bit of film from WWI, and said that despite that horror it seemed like every nation was gearing up to do the whole thing again. No mention of Germany was made, however, still less of a certain Austrian gentleman making noise at the time ...

There were some decent war films made in the intervening years, but I think you have to get to the mid 60s at least before the realism and cynicism of All Quiet started to become the mainstream (with the likes of Too Late the Hero and others), too many of the post WWII films were just flag waving propaganda. Indeed perhaps it wasn't until the 1970s with the enormous impact of the Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now. Certainly a viewing of All Quiet shows how much of the hype around Saving Private Ryan was a bit overdone. And if anyone had bothered watching it, they wouldn't have made the abominable British film The Trench a couple of years ago either.

Gracchi said...

Umpire its not often I agree with a post almost without question- indeed I sort of feel that my own comment is unneccessary at this point but thanks very much. I thought it was a superb film as well- I loved the moment when he starts talking to a corpse, for psychological realism I thought that was fantastic. My version off Amazon did have the Remarque quote at the beggining so there is now a version out there which does.

Political Umpire said...

Thanks Graachi. I'm sure I've still got the information sheet handed out by the NFT and will try and find it. I know that the evening was filmed by the Museum but can't find any reference to it (or the film) on their website, annoyingly enough.

There's a very detailed plot summary at, though the background information is a bit sketchy by comparison.

Annoyingly the Wikipedia entry is unworthy:

It mentions that the film was banned for a time in Australia, but nothing is said of German censorship in the 1930s, which is surely of greater interest and poigniancy. The only other piece of trivia offered is "The fanzine that singer/songwriter Pete Doherty was junior editor of as a boy, All's Quiet on the Western Avenue, is a pun on the title.", which should win a prize for the most fatuous and irrelevant piece of information on the web. Elsewhere it is said on Wikipedia that the story about Remarque's actual name Remark being a reversal of Kramer to hide his Jewish origins was invented by the Nazis; interesting but in light of what else is on Wikipedia I don't know if it's true.

One thing that is true is that the scences when Paul sees his mother while on leave had to be reshot, because the original actress was well-known for comedy roles, and test audiences assumed therefore that the scenes with her in them were intended to be funny. Hard not to be patronising about the audience's lack of sophistication if it's true.

Anyone interested in the film should also see Kubrick's Paths of Glory - a similarly moving film, though given it was made nearly 30 years after All Quiet it can't be called groundbreaking.

My other favourite B&W war film is the British propaganda piece Went the Day Well? - no punches pulled whatsoever. Though the threat of German invasion had receded somewhat by the time of its release in 1942, contemporary audiences could hardly have been sure of that and so the film must have chilled them to the bone.

dreadnought said...

I was going to mention Paths of Glory, until I noticed Political Umpire already had! As usual with a Kubrick film the imagery is exceptional and the pivotal battle scene is quite excellent, especially as it follows the progress of the main character, amongst the mêlée around him, as he leads and picks his way across no man's land. As for All Quiet on the Western Front; I don’t think I could add anything that hasn’t already been said.

By the way, if you haven’t already seen it, I would recommend The Thin Red Line which came out at about the same time as Saving Private Ryan but which in my opinion is a superior film.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Dreadnought- I agree with you about The Thin Red Line- I saw it years ago on a DVD at a friend's place and remember that the imagery was well filmed. Thanks for coming over though.