Friday, August 8, 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)

Perhaps one could call this the anti-epic, the tale of an ordinary German boy who joined the army in the first heat of idealism, only to watch his friends die, one after the other, for nothing. The professor who preaches honour and glory is a jingoistic fool, and the people at home want the army, underfed and undersupplied with every sort of necessity, to march on to Paris. Through more than two hours of the story—long, but not overlong—the film-makers, faithful to the original novel by Erich Marie Remarque, stress the effort to hold onto whatever it is that makes us human. This is not easy in the midst of a steady rain of death that renders all pre-war notions of sense meaningless and absurd. Disillusionment is epidemic, and in the face of a necessity that makes no sense—the war goes on—something else emerges. Cameraderie is paramount, the link that binds soldiers together in the face of death. Also the simple things, food, drink, dry clothing, sleep, and the dreamed-of things, home, love, and a coherent world—but in the grotesque absurdity of trench warfare, such dreams are hopelessly remote, and the war is near. The film is brilliantly acted by a very big cast. The central figure, Paul Bäumer, grows from a sensitive, romantic youth to a seasoned, disillusioned soldier; still, he retains a bit of his core of integrity—Lew Ayres is wonderful in this part. Over all, the movie produces a sense of painful recognition of waste, just like the great national cemeteries with their miles of crosses and gravestones. The final shot is a montage showing one of these graveyards seen from above, perhaps from the crest of a hill, and superimposed over this is a scene from early in the movie when the young recruits marched off to war in their clean,.new uniforms. As they pass, some of them—the main characters of the story, look back briefly over their shoulders directly into the camera, turn back, and march on toward death. Their faces are young and sober. It is one of the single most affecting shots I have ever seen, and perfectly holds this true masterpiece together.

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