I spent part of the Memorial Day weekend watching Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front. At face value, some of the film’s characteristics seem almost quaint, or even perverse. The movie is more than 85 years old; one of the first recipients of the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was released just three years after the breakthrough sound film The Jazz Singer. It depicts an all-white, virtually all-male world where Hollywood film actors are portraying German soldiers fighting in World War I, using a script riddled with American slang. There is virtually no musical soundtrack. Given these ingredients, one might expect grainy footage, two-dimensional acting, chauvinistic undertones, and heaping portions of cliché.
Nothing could be further from the truth. With its exquisite directorial sensibility, superb production values, harrowing battle scenes, and moving performances, All Quiet on the Western Front endures as a towering achievement of American cinema.
In an early scene, a German schoolteacher is exhorting his teenage charges to volunteer for the imminent war. He invokes a citation from Horace – Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”) – which also served as the title for Wilfred Owen’s famous World War I poem. The camera pulls back to reveal two large windows flanking the teacher, through which one sees a bustle of activity in the town square, where the local citizens are festively making ready for the coming catastrophe. The boys’ faces shine as they jump to their feet and declare their intention to enlist in quick succession. The die is cast.
Milestone continues to employ both of these motifs to devastating effect: the masterful use of windows and doors, which serve as metaphorical portals to the hell of war, and exquisite close-ups of the actors’ angelic and tortured expressions. Multiple moments linger in the mind: The terrifying monotony of the bombing raids. The tenderness the soldiers display to their comrades. A trench battle that serves as a precursor to the horrors of Saving Private Ryan (and which Spielberg has cited as a source of inspiration). A protracted and unforgettable encounter between the protagonist, Paul (in an epic performance by Lew Ayres) and a French soldier. (In one battle sequence, you’re given a soldier’s-eye view, looking up from the bottom of a trench as enemy infantrymen jump over you. Then one of them discovers you.) One is alternately petrified, touched, and heartbroken during this nuanced and eloquent indictment of war, which was critically heralded on its release – and which was made less than a decade before the German invasion of Poland that launched the global cataclysm of World War II.
For most of us in post-9/11 America, war is an abstract phenomenon waged at arm’s length by drones, terrorists, mysterious African countries, and American volunteers drawn disproportionately from the ranks of the poor and communities of color. Our nightly news offers no graphic footage of the collateral damage exacted by suicide bombers in Afghanistan or the Assad regime in Syria. Having endured a horrific attack on our own soil, we prefer to distract ourselves during our leisure hours with fictional bloodbaths packaged and promoted as entertainment. All Quiet on the Western Front is both an exercise in time travel and a cautionary tale for the present – a lasting reminder of the incalculable toll that warfare in all its forms exacts on innocent victims, individual psyches, entire societies, and our collective humanity.