Welcome to the first post of our new blog series WWI on Film: 11 Films for the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice. From now until November 11th, we’ll be highlighting movies about WWI from our collection. We’ll be discussing common themes throughout the movies, attributes that make each of these films stand out, as well as our own personal thoughts and feelings and we watch the films. Our first selection is All Quiet on the Western Front (DVD 853)
When Carl Laemmle, the head of Hollywood’s Universal Studios, traveled to Germany to buy the rights to Eric Maria Remarque’s best-selling All Quiet on the Western Front, he can’t have been sure of success. In 1929, Remarque’s candid, unflinching novel about the horrors of the First World War had become an overnight sensation, not only in his native Germany but the world over. Remarque, a veteran himself, was highly skeptical that his book could be faithfully adapted for the silver screen, and had no interest in added romance or valor. Somehow, though, Laemmle convinced Remarque to sell him the film rights, though not without an unusual stipulation in the contract. Remarque insisted that Universal adapt the book without and “significant alterations or additions.”[i] The film was not to be a glamorous war movie. There would be no embellishment. Universal was not to stray far Remarque’s own truth about the war.
Remarque’s truth ended up being more universal than Laemmle could have imagined.
The film follows Paul Baumer, a young German man. At the outbreak of the war, he eagerly enlists, egged on by his nationalist schoolmaster, Kantorek. In the very first scene of the film, Kantorek uses all methods of persuasion to convince his pupils to enlist. He begins with passive-aggressive suggestion (“is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy?”), but ends with nationalistic fervor: “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country.”
The irony of the situation—that the older Kantorek will never be called on to die for his country—doesn’t occur to Paul until it is too late. The Army doesn’t view Paul and his classmates as Gold Youth, but rather as insignificant foot soldiers. Their drill sergeant is sadistic, and their training does little to prepare them for the horrors of trench warfare. Once they get to the front, there’s never enough to eat, and even the army cooks are more concerned with numbers and regulations than the actual well-being of the troops.
Paul’s most pressing daily conflict isn’t the Triple Alliance versus the Triple Entente. Rather, it is the enlisted soldiers—Paul and his comrades—against the army. His daily battles for food, for relief, or even for compassionate treatment at the hospital, all seem hopeless. This sense of disillusionment begins early in the movie, when Paul and his comrades fail to find a reason for why they’re fighting in the first place. The causes of the war are a mystery to them, and they can’t grasp why they’re fighting if “we didn’t want it, the English didn’t want it.”
By focusing on the day-to-day experiences of a common soldier, and ignoring the political machinations, Universal Studios created a film that appealed to almost everyone touched by the war. When the movie was released in 1930, frustration with army bureaucracy, the horrors of trench warfare, a loss of innocence, and a lack of a moral or clear motivation to fight, united men more than nationality divided them. Paul and his friends could have been American, French, or British instead of German. All Quiet on the Western Front was a film that, ultimately, advocated peace by showing the pointlessness of war.
[i] Jerold Simmons, “Film and International Politics: The Banning of All Quiet on the Western Front in Germany and Austria, 1930-1931,” The Historian 52, no. 1 (November 1989): 41-42, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24447602.