Last month, President Barack Obama went to Flanders and gave a speech about the First World War. As is typical for him, his words were phrased so carefully that they aspire to an ambiguity that, if achieved, would render them almost meaningless. “And so this visit, this hallowed ground, reminds us that we must never, ever take our progress for granted,” he said, laying a wreath on the graves of three American soldiers. “We must commit perennially to peace, which binds us across oceans.”
Does this man ever take a clear, principled stand on anything?
“Here, we also see that no soldier — and no nation — sacrificed alone,” he continued, honoring Brave Little Belgium. “I’m told that this is one of more than 100 cemeteries tucked into the quiet corners of this beautiful countryside. It’s estimated that beneath about 50 square miles there rest hundreds of thousands of men — Belgian and American, French and Canadian, British and Australian, and so many others.”
The First World War, which, until 1945, was usually known as “The Great War,” is one of the most written about, yet, at least in the United States, one of the least understood events of the 20th Century. President Obama hints at some of the scale of the conflict, but he deprives it of its meaning by depriving it of its meaninglessness. To argue that the French and Belgium ruling classes made a brave stand for democracy and civilization by sacrificing a generation of their young men against the German ruling class may work as a veiled threat against the Russians in Ukraine, but it does nothing to increase our understanding of the Holocaust that took place in Western Europe between 1914-1918.
All Quiet On the Western Front has such a distant, luminous aura that it seems as much a part of the history of The Great War as it does a film about The Great War. Based on the novel of the same name by the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On the Western Front is the first Hollywood movie to win simultaneous Best Picture and Best Director awards. Even though, or perhaps because it shows the Great War from the point of view of the front line German soldier, Joseph Goebbels organized an attack on its premier in Germany, setting off stink bombs and releasing white mice in the theater. Eventually, Carl Laemmle, Sr., the head of Universal, agreed to edit out so many of the passages attacking German militarism, most of the film was left on the cutting room floor.
Does All Quiet on the Western Front live up to its legend?
I suppose the answer would be “yes and no.” The technology seems crude by today’s standards, the acting almost wooden. As a piece of cinema, as drama, it falls far short of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. All Quiet on the Western Front is overly long, and perhaps just a bit boring. It has no character as vividly drawn as Renoir’s sublime Captain de Boeldieu, an aristocratic French pilot who puts on a pair of white gloves, and sacrifices his life to help two comrades escape as casually as if he were ordering a bottle of wine at Maxim’s.
But perhaps that’s the point. Where The Grand Illusion showed us the Great War from the point of view of the elite, All Quiet on The Western Front tells us the story of the rank and file German soldier. We begin in a high school class in an unnamed German city. If it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is an American film, it’s little details like this remind us the film was produced in Hollywood, not Berlin. There were of course, no general public high schools in imperial Germany. There were Gymnasiums, schools for the university bound elite. There were realschules, oriented towards a more technical, practical curriculum. There were apprenticeships and less prestigious institutions for the working class. Kantorek, the “high school” teacher who gives the speech that opens All Quiet on the Western Front stands in front of a blackboard where we can see several foreign languages, one of them Latin, so it’s probably a gymnasium, but the class he exhorts to enlist and serve the fatherland resembles a classic American World War II infantry platoon in its diversity.
There’s Joseph Behm, a quiet, nervous young man who’s less enthusiastic than the rest of the class, and who would later be the first of their group to be killed. There’s Peter Leer, a ladies man and talented mathematician. There’s Fredrich Müller, a quiet bookworm who brings his own pair of boots to the front, boots of such high quality that the rest of his platoon covet them after his death. There’s Paul Baumer, the book’s hero, an aspiring writer, and clearly a stand in for Remaque himself. The novel, and the movie, ends with Baumer’s death, and, for the most part, sees the war through his eyes. Baumer is a familiar character in American war movies. He’s Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor from Platoon. He’s Mathew Modine’s James T. “Joker” Davis from Full Metal Jacket. He’s Lieutenant Henry from A Farewell to Arms. He’s the representative young man for whom the war is his coming of age, the sensitive, intelligent every man who represents the nation as a whole.
Unlike The Grand Illusion, there are no senior officers or members of the elite. All Quiet on the Western Front is a savage indictment of German militarism, but we don’t get to see the Prussian general staff. There are no millionaire arms manufacturers. There’s one junior officer, Lieutenant Bertinck, an intelligent company commander who’s largely respected by the rank and file soldiers under his command, but, for the most part, the only authority figures we see are the same authority figures we all see. There’s Kantorek, the stupid elderly high school teacher who foolishly brainwashes Paul and his class into signing up at the beginning of the war in 1914, then, just as foolishly, keeps giving the same speech 4 years later, even after millions of corpses have piled up. There’s Corporal Himmelstoss, a postman in civilian life. Himmelstoss represents everything that’s rotten about imperial Germany. A strutting little martinet, he abuses his men during their basic training. He cheats them of their leave, pulls rank instead of earning their respect, and later, when he goes the front, proves himself to be first a coward, then a fool.
Above all there’s Stanislaus Katczinsky. Katczinsky, or “Kat,” is a 40-year-old veteran who serves as a mentor and father figure to the 18 and 19-year-old recruits. He’s a rough looking man who worked as a cobbler in civilian life, but who’s a natural leader, and model of the kind of NCO soldiers in every army genuinely respect. He doesn’t pull rank. He doesn’t bully. He never gives speeches about the fatherland. Kat is only concerned with what the soldiers are concerned with, staying alive, and getting enough to eat. The food in the Imperial German Army, like the food in any big, industrial institution, isn’t of the highest quality. What’s more, Germany, in 1914, was subject to a British naval blockade that made food even more scarce than it would have been.
All Quiet on the Western Front was released in August of 1930, which was almost a year after the stock market crash in 1929. I’m not exactly sure when it was filmed, or exactly how much of a role the struggle for food plays in the book, but clearly the images of soldiers trying to make a coveted loaf of bread last, or Kat stealing a whole pig from a supply truck, would take on greater significance as the United States, and Europe, slipped further and further into the Great Depression. Kat would become, not only the veteran soldier. He might also be the veteran hobo who knew how to avoid the police, or the resourceful father figure who knows how to keep his children alive in spite of all the poverty and despair.
All Quiet On The Western Front — I’m talking only about the film. I haven’t read the book — may not have an explicitly leftist agenda, but, clearly, Stanislaus Katczinsky represents the organized working class, and Corporal Himmelstoss the proto-fascist petty-bourgeoisie.
All Quiet On The Western Front would also set the template for dozens of American films about the “futility of war.” Baumer, the aspiring writer, is confronted by nothing but absurdity. There’s young man with the fine, imported leather boots who has his leg amputated. There’s the petty, tyrannical cook who refuses to serve dinner because he cooked for 150 and half the company had been killed during a ferocious battle. He can’t dish out any more than he’s allowed to by regulations but he can’t throw the extra food out either because that’s also against regulations. There are the men themselves, as thankful for the extra food as they are sorry about the 75 dead comrades. There’s the incessant war with the French for a blasted landscape nobody wants anyway. There’s the French soldier who takes forever to die. There’s the shelling of the graveyard that digs up long dead corpses and sends splinters of wooden coffins flying through the air. There’s Baumer’s futile attempt to carry Kat to a hospital for a broken shin. Kat gets hit in the head by shrapnel while Baumer has him slung over his shoulder. There’s Baumer’s absurd death only a few hours before the war’s end. Nothing in All Quiet On The Western Front is glorious or heroic. There aren’t any gallant individual gestures as in Grand Illusion. Everything about the Great War is dirty, rotten, meaningless. There are no heroes and cowards, as Baumer tries to make clear to his old high school teacher and new students while he’s home on leave. There are only living men and dead men. The only goal is to stay alive. Since the war is so absurd, it’s not even easy to want that.
If the Great War is not well-understood in the United States, and if President Obama’s speech about “Brave Little Belgium” seemed to characteristically fatuous and glib, it’s entirely due to the absurd nature of the Great War. Unlike the United States Civil War, which was about ending slavery, or the wars of the French Revolution, which were about bringing democracy, or the Second World War, which was destroying fascism, or the Spanish Civil War, which was about destroying fascism and bringing democracy, the Great War of 1914 was about absolutely nothing. The French, German, and British ruling classes were equally rotten, the Russian and American ruling classes probably worse. All Quiet On The Western Front would eventually be overshadowed by a flood of movies about World War II. The idea that war is hell and only hell never quite made sense when you were fighting Hitler. The template would finally come to fruition after the United States War in Vietnam. The real successors to All Quiet On The Western Front are films like the unjustly neglected Boys in Company C, not the hyper stylized Full Metal Jacket. But even the War in Vietnam had good guys, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, and bad guys, the United States. For sheer amoral, politically neutral absurdity, nothing ever quite matched The Great War.
All Quiet On The Western Front may drag, may not be an enjoyable film to watch, but unlike Barack Obama, it gets everything right.