Westfront 1918 (DVD 16017)is one of Media Services’ newest acquisitions, but it’s one of the oldest films we’re reviewing for this series. A contemporary of All Quiet on the Western Front, Westfront explores many of the same themes, like the camaraderie between soldiers and alienation from the home front. Like All Quiet, Westfront is based on a memoir/novel by a German veteran. Unlike the American-produced All Quiet, however, Westfront is a purely German production. The movie was actually G.W. Pabsts’ first ‘talkie,’ but Westfront is remarkable for its relative lack of dialogue. Instead, Pabst relies on vocal silence, and the environmental noises of war.
The film follows four German soldiers on the Western Front in the final days of the war. We get a sense that a lot has happened before the movie begins. The men in the company joke and make fun of each other like old friends, they all look haggard, and their uniforms are worn, dirty, and messy. Because we know the context, we can guess about what these men have seen together, but we can only guess. This allows the audience to do two things. First, it lets us fill in the gaps for ourselves. We can imagine something infinitely worse than what they’ve actually experienced, or something easier. Either way, we’ll probably never guess the truth. This, in turn, serves to isolate the men from the audience. Pabst is effectively putting us in the shoes of the men’s families back home, a theme which is explored later in the film.
We’re further isolated from the men because only one of them, Karl, is ever named. The others are simply “the Lieutenant,” “the Bavarian,” and “the Student.” We really only know Karl’s name because he gets home leave halfway through the movie, and that’s how his mother and wife refer to him. Again, the viewer can guess about the men’s lives before the war, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. They are there on the front, and that’s all that matters.
This reticence in details extends to the film’s dialogue. The men don’t need words to communicate. Silence or significant looks work just as well, and they often convey more than mere words could. Again, this binds the men together and excludes the audience, but it also allows their situation to speak for itself. The most common sound in Westfront is not the human voice, but explosions from incoming shells. Nearly every shot features an explosion, or at least the sounds of explosions if the men are in a dugout or behind the lines. The men take precautions, and do what they can to avoid the fire, but they have by and large ceased to be afraid. Sure, they drop to the ground when they hear a shell coming towards them, but you get the feeling that it’s more a matter of procedure than out of terror or fear.
Westfront 1918 reflects the realities of the Western front, and average soldiers’ experiences, without fanfare and without moralizing overtones. While the film definitely has an anti-war agenda, it isn’t overt. Instead, it creeps up on you, and leaves you thinking about war’s implications long after the movie ends.