All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★★

What birthed my obsession with World War I was not the stuff they taught me in school. It was neither the sinking of the Lusitania nor the Zimmerman Telegram. It was not the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, nor the grisly deployment of chemical weapons. It was not military maneuverings, such as the execution of the Schlieffen Plan, nor the more literal executions of alleged deserters or cowards, such as dramatized in Kubrick's Paths of Glory. It was not the myriad revolutions the war inspired nor the curios such as Rasputin that filled newspaper headlines. No, what sparked my interest was a small and mostly overlooked event: the 1914 Christmas Truce, an outbreak of peace up and down the trenches scouring the Western Front. That event, which was spontaneous, saw soldiers venture into No Man's Land to fraternize with their ostensible enemies. They traded goods, exchanged gifts, played games, put up Christmas trees, and put on impromptu concerts. They even allowed the cleanup of the battlefield, with teams removing the dead who littered the terrain and giving them proper burials.

Even in the aftermath of the incredible carnage of those first few months of the war, this event still transpired. The soldiers recognized, however briefly, that those in the opposite trenches were not their enemy. They spoke a different language, yes, and dressed in foreign colors, but that was all surface-level subterfuge. For a moment, they disregarded it. Sadly, the soldiers never learned, at least not in significant enough numbers, that their true foe lay deep behind their own lines; the real villains were sat at desks, acting as marshals at parades, giving out quotes to doltish and obsequious reporters, or otherwise strutting before cameras and pontificating about whithertos and wherefores. Meanwhile, the frontline soldier, both the conscript and the willing volunteer, was being bled dry to the tune of tens of thousands of men on a weekly basis – and in the most pitched battles, on a daily basis. That's how, as the closing credits of All Quiet on the Western Front inform us, you get to a death toll of 17 million in four-and-a-quarter years: an astonishing blend of incompetence, banal malevolence, and horrific modern weaponry conspired to soak the soil in the blood of an entire generation of its youth.

Popular media has tended to gravitate towards depictions of the Second World War. It is the "sexier" war, after all, with the vastly larger body count and the starker villains. It is the so-called "good war", and has shaped much of the world's current order. The First World War, on the other hand, was such a monumentally catastrophic tragedy that its televised or cinematic depictions are usually given a less rah-rah treatment. The British comedy Blackadder Goes Forth typifies this, particularly in its poignant finale as the men are sent over the top. The 2005 film Joyeux Noël, an underappreciated gem about that very Christmas Truce, gives us the same approach: it celebrates the best of humanity, but is ultimately a lament.

All Quiet on the Western Front operates in much the same fashion, and with similar moral quietude. There is one graphic scene just over halfway through that finds the main character, Paul Bäumer, stuck in a trench. He and his fellow Germans have once again gone over the top to charge across the torn-up landscape to the French trenches, but after initial success they are forced to retreat (a bleak summation of the Western Front in general). He loses ground and takes shelter in a massive shell crater as the French forces overtake him. He buries his face in the putrid mud, hoping to be mistaken for dead. At the bottom of the crater is a rancid pool that is a sickening mix of brown and red: a combination of viscous earth and an accumulation of oozing blood. In all probability, there are bodies in its shallow depths, left over from the last several charges and retreats. His breathing shaky, Paul sees a French soldier training his gunsights on him. In the skirmish that follows, Paul plunges his knife repeatedly into the man's chest. Yet the man doesn't die, instead drawing ragged and agonizing breaths. Paul tries to shut him up, but to no avail. He flees to another area of the crater, hoping the distance will suffice to drown out the man's rattling inhalations. Only then does he recognize the immensity of the man's suffering. Paul returns to his side and attempts to render aid. His efforts fail, however, and Paul watches the man's chest stop its rickety undulations and the pained light go out of his eyes. He weeps over the body and apologizes to his victim in French.

There is nothing remotely exciting about this, nor should there be. The Great War is a black spot on the 20th century, a needless slaughter that either ushered in or augured untold human suffering in its wake, particularly with the rise of the total state over billions of people. It spurred the rise of Hitler as much as it emboldened the fanatical ravages of Imperial Japan. It cemented Bolshevism in Russia, too, and in so doing it gave us the evil twin ideologies of communism and fascism, omnipotent and anti-human in their bent, and which would dot the planet with mass graves wherever they went. To say all these things had their genesis in the First World War is simplistic at best; but to say otherwise, that the destruction wrought by the war didn't play a significant part, perhaps even a starring role, in effecting or ratcheting up these evils, would be similarly ahistorical.

All Quiet on the Western Front is not particularly interested in these big-picture musings. It is instead focused on how the soldiers were affected by the propaganda that sparked it and then kept it going. It follows Paul and his friends, most of them schoolboys who enlisted as soon as they were able. The film is adapted from the influential Erich Maria Remarque novel, but is not terribly faithful to it. Some scenes are lifted intact from the source, but overall much from there is diced up and shifted around. The film starts in spring 1917 with Paul's enlistment, but very quickly skips ahead to November 1918, mere days ahead of the armistice. Between the scenes we spend with Paul and his friends, we get introduced to a German delegation sent by train to negotiate that armistice. They sup, dine, and sleep in luxurious quarters while they bat around ideas for how to draw the war to a close. The Germans are in an extremely weak position by this time. Though still nominally occupying French soil, their situation is untenable. Morale in the trenches is low; a revolution is stirring at home, where mass starvation has set in thanks to a British blockade on the civilian population; and, most importantly, they are running out of fresh-faced boys to throw into the meat grinder. They are desperate for terms of peace, and will concede much to get them.

The French are not doing much better, but they have an ace in the hole: the Americans – perhaps the closest thing to an outright villain in the war, in my view, their copious loans to all sides having kept the war going long past when it might otherwise have ended – are sending huge amounts of men and treasure every day now to ensure a victory for the Entente. The Germans have no leverage, and the French, left pale and pissed by four years of fighting on their homeland, will accept nothing less than capitulation. The German delegation puts their names to paper to accept these terms, inaugurating what amounted to a 21-year ceasefire – until September 1939 and the invasion of Poland.

Much of what I'm writing is commentary that echoes between the lines in All Quiet on the Western Front, and is rarely made explicit in the negotiations we witness. The filmmakers assume you will know some of these background details, and so the weight of what you see will land. For me, these beats all landed hard, even though I must admit the film presents no novel take on the war or its effects.

Instead, the film always returns to how this all affects the common soldier, men like Paul Bäumer, in their day-to-day experiences in or behind the trench lines. When the suggestion is agreed to by the French and German delegations to have the armistice take effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one participant at the negotiating table observes that that leaves several hours during which the parties are still at war. Despite all the prior hemming and hawing about the need to end the war and save lives, they elect not to end it immediately and instead postpone the final moment. There was no strategic reasoning for this; the delay was purely for the perceived poetry of ending at 11 a.m. on 11/11.

In a war of this scale and savagery, what can happen in those few remaining hours until the bell tolls for peace and the soldiers lay down their arms? Lots more young men can die, that's what. 2,738, to be exact, merely the last to serve as fodder for the churn of empires on those green fields of France.

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