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A generation of men destroyed by war
on July 16, 2004
For a movie in the 1930's, Lewis Milestone's adaptation of All Quiet On The Western Front, based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel, follows the book reasonably well. However, rather than starting with the soldiers lining up to get the cook Ginger's stew per the novel (that part comes later), it starts with Paul Baumer's school teacher telling him and his fellow students that they are the light of the Fatherland, the iron men of Germany, the brave heroes who will repulse the enemies when called to do so. In other words, he's exhorting them to enlist, which they do, pressed into patriotism in what was initially thought to have been a quick war with small losses.
From the start, the recruits are eager to get into uniform and to the front, and are puzzled by the behaviour of burned-out experienced soldiers like Tjaden and Kat. This latter, a large, pleasantly ugly man has a knack for scrounging for food and finding enough for the group, and soon, all the recruits stick with and respect this man, especially after their first bombardment. When one of the recruits realizes he has wet his trousers, Kat tells him not to worry about it, as it's happened to better men.
The stages of attacking, the bombardment, attack, counterattack, and repulse, is presented in graphic detail for that period, with the shots of men dying by artillery shells, being bayoneted, or machine-gunned. Some recruits go crazy waiting in the bunker during the bombardment, and one of them rushes outside, only to get cut down by bullets. And the aftermath isn't pretty for some. Franz Kemmerich ends up in the infirmary and has his leg amputated. From the grueling experience of phantom limb pain to the realization that one has lost his limb, the greed of some like Muller who wants Franz's nice boots, to the unconcern of the doctors who see Franz's death as another free bed, war is hell.
War changes people's perspectives. Paul fights and stabs a French soldier at close quarters in a foxhole, and he pleads and apologizes to the dying man, telling him that without these uniforms, they could be friends, and promising to write to his wife. And on leave, Paul is clearly alienated from the older civilians who have no clue that war has burned out his soul, and just keep telling him to give those Frenchies a licking and push on to Paris. I'd go for Tjaden's solution to war: get the politicians and generals wearing just their underpants into a big field and fight it out with clubs. But the discussion of the soldiers yields something still relevant: manufacturers want a war to sell more arms.
The subplot involving the butterflies is new, but the shot of the soldier reaching for the butterfly before being shot by a sniper symbolizes a soldier's whose burned out soul is suddenly heartened as seeing something beautiful, and suddenly thus illuminated within, reaches toward it.
All Quiet On The Western Front deservedly went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in the US. However, Joseph Goebbels' antics in Berlin demonstrates how Germany was in a state of war denial. The incident at a theatre of the second night showing of the movie involved Goebbels' men starting disturbances and yelling anti-Semitic epithets that resulted in the film's termination after ten minutes. Goebbels hadn't even seen the film; he merely wanted to demonstrate Nazi power in Berlin and discredit Albert Grzesinski, Prussia's Interior Minister who was a Social Democrat. When the film was banned by the Board of Censors because it "endangered Germany's image abroad", the headlines of Goebbels' newspaper Der Angriff (German for The Attack) read "Grzesinski Defeated."
One of the few war films I'll watch due to its pacifist message, denouncing the glorification of war. The prologue at the movie's beginning, taken from Remarque's book, says it all: this story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all, an adventure. For death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men, who even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.