Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Westfront 1918: The Other “All Quiet On The Western Front”

World War I films are having a moment thanks to the acclaimed works 1917, Benediction, Amsterdam (okay, not all are acclaimed), and the newly minted Oscar-winner All Quiet On The Western Front. World War II could not exist without the first one, even though the sequel is a more fascinating battle. With Edward Berger’s successful version of the famous anti-war novel, it has pushed to mind other movies about the same period. Specifically, a film about the war made during those interwar years. In the Weimar Republic, when Germany was still struggling to get itself together after its defeat, director Georg Wilhelm Pabst dared to make a movie about the country’s final months before their capitulation.

Even with the Nazi Party gaining strength and touting against any sign of defeatism, Pabst adapted another anti-war novel, Four Infantrymen on the Western Front, into his first talking picture. The film is set in France during the last months of the war and said four infantrymen are on leave to start the story. One name, Karl, is revealed, and the others are referred to by their occupation: the student, the lieutenant, and the Bavarian. The student falls for a young French woman, but the four have to return to the front. The hardships fall on them, quite literally, as it appears all of the fighting was for naught.

The film was released in 1930, the same year Hollywood released their original version of All Quiet. The infrastructure director Lewis Milestone had was a lot better than Pabst’s, who had to find a creative way of using sound while maintaining his artistic credentials with his camera. He could do his visuals without the worry of the sound equipment, but now he had to find proper places to maximize it, as well as capture the crashes and bombings that took place. In the studio, interiors were one thing, but taking the battles outside and moving his camera proved to be a challenge. It was a depth of realism never shown before to the German public.

It wasn’t all bombs and blood. Pabst also put in the human fragility around his four leads. One is the aforementioned romance between the student and the young French girl. Karl has a wife back home but discovers her affair with the butcher to curb loneliness and to get extra food since the rations won’t do. Yet, he shows no emotion to this betrayal. The Bavarian is a loner who seems mentally strong, but even he has his breaking point. Then, there is the lieutenant who keeps to himself until the last shelling when he loses all composure. In the end, after Karl says the blame goes to everyone involved before dying, a wounded French soldier extends his hand, referring to him as a comrade rather than an enemy.

You see the fear, the cynicism, the despair, and the acceptance that it will not end well in these characters. Carnage is all around them and if they come out of it alive, it will be a miracle. A few dozen guests at the premiere fainted at such a sight, and the objective critics could only praise Pabst for being truthful of the outcome to their countryman in battle. Unfortunately for Pabst, he faced condemnation on two sides of Germany on the brink. The Left liked the film but said Pabst failed to be political and explain why the war started. The Right, including the Nazis, condemned the film for its defeatism, and was subsequently banned in 1933.The movie did not need to be full of blood & guts to show what war is. That’s the beauty of any war film before the advent of computer special effects. It shows the poison of nationalism, just like the beginning of the recent All Quiet when the new recruits cheer on the belief that the country will defend the Fatherland and crush its enemies. There’s a tune the Bavarian sings, “Never leave your house and home or a cold grave will be yours.” An estimated 10 million soldiers on both sides ended up in one. Even with powerful messages like Westfront 1918, there would be millions more in another world war.


Follow me on Twitter: @brian_cine (Cine-A-Man) 


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