During one of the occasional moments of All Quiet on the Western Front that's actually quiet enough to hear someone speak, infantryman Tjaden observes, "Me and the Kaiser, we're both fighting. The only difference is the Kaiser isn't here." Erich Maria Remarque's recent novel becomes a movie with an alarmingly wide canvas--I’ve read somewhere that enough TNT was used to wreck Los Angeles, that all 2000 extras were ex-soldiers, and that the camera crew wore German spiked helmets, pickelhauben, after someone was knocked unconscious by flying debris. And it's all there on the screen: the battle scenes are extensive, grueling, and deafening, the agile camera sweeping along with the lines and snapping back as the bodies fall.
To what end has all this effort been spent? The bare facts are laid out--but all I take with me is broken-hearted dismay. Remarque has taken ten years to emerge from the Great War's wreckage, a mess compounded by willful amnesia. I can barely remind myself of those French veterans, their faces maimed at the front, wearing prosthetic noses, chins, and ears so as not to offend passers-by with the sight of, as the film's opening title states, a "generation of men who ... were destroyed." It seems Remarque had had enough of mulling it over while the '20s roared along without a thought in its jazzed head. And the movie shares his urgency, its outrage and bitter scorn and pity and sadness pulling me into the trench and between the crosshairs.
Early on, a schoolteacher exhorts his students to join the march--which is right outside their windows, at first louder than the vigorous speech of the professor, then subsiding to allow us to hear him use the same old language that gets "young men playing old men's games," as my mother defined war. And of course by the end of his speech the classroom is empty; the camera stays behind and watches through the windows as the boys jauntily join the procession.
All Quiet on the Western Front’s mission is never to let us forget the suffocating irony of such moments; by the end, Remarque's alter-ego, Paul Baumer--Lew Ayres, his chin down, his whole hopeful frame crushed--stares without recognition at his parents and his home, cuts short his leave, and returns to the trenches, where he is shot without fanfare--true, while reaching for a butterfly (he and his sister used to collect them), an image slathered with irony; but after two hours of noise and filth in the service of nothing, I simply can't smirk; we are compelled to leave Paul be, to avert our eyes, as the camera does, so that he can die in peace.
It is a simple message, one I sometimes kid myself into thinking I'm too smart to believe; but again, while watching the movie I could not help myself from hearing other old men exhorting young men to play the game--in Germany again, already, trailing national pride like a dead rabbit to train a dog to hunt--for all the “right” reasons, of course, as unreasonable and vile as they have always been. It's important to note that the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front shriek regularly; it is a sound we'd rather not hear, and try to make it seem silly and simplistic, or fit that shrieking face with a prosthetic. But I think it is an authentic sound, as purposeful as grief and as necessary as grace.