104 years after the armistice of World War I, all veterans have long past and their memories are left to the history books. Having lived in peacetime my whole life, my concept of war is very abstract, so I expected the war movie, All Quiet on the Western Front, to be a fun action-packed watch. However, I quickly realized that this was a very grim film. All Quiet on the Western Front, released on Oct. 28, is a German anti-war film that brings the reality of war back into its horrific focus.
The movie explores the daily life of wartime through the lens of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a teenage boy who signs up for the German army with his friends as they graduate high school in 1917. However, the movie does not immediately open with his perspective.
Instead, it begins with several long, haunting shots of nature: a mountain during sunrise, a forest shrouded in fog and a vixen sleeping alongside her pups. No music accompanies these scenes but the sound of distant thunder. After acclimatizing viewers to the quiet atmosphere, the movie cuts to scenes of no man’s land, a snowy field strewn with bodies of dead soldiers.
This is a film that pulls no punches. We join the soldiers in the trenches during a battle, following a terrified young boy as he desperately tries to survive the charge, his fellow men bloody and dying all around him. Then it cuts to the title card, and we see the aftermath of the battle. Bodies are carelessly thrown around like sacks of potatoes, stripped of supplies and uniforms and then packaged away into coffins.
The awful efficiency and pragmatism of the German war effort are emphasized, as we watch the bloodied uniforms of the dead get washed and mended then given to new recruits. This is when we meet our protagonist Pau, as he and his friends excitedly sign up for the army while their school principal recites war propaganda to them. They are heartbreakingly young, resembling teenagers excited for a homecoming game more than new soldiers going to war.
Paul is given a uniform still bearing the name tag of its deceased former owner, the frightened boy depicted at the beginning of the movie. However, not realizing it, Paul and his friends travel to the western front. They look forward to the glory of war and hope to see Paris, making it clear that they have no idea what they have signed up for. But we are all too aware of the bleak dramatic irony, having seen a glimpse of the realities of war earlier in the film.
As the film progresses, Paul experiences the trauma of trench warfare. In just a few months, he loses his boyish innocence and becomes almost unrecognizable, a soldier through and through.
With most of the soldiers, Paul included, the movie barely allows the viewer to get to know them. We learn very little about their lives and interests outside of the trenches. Yet, we empathize with these men because of the vivid display of their terror and desperation.
It’s clear that all soldiers, on both sides of the war, spend most of their efforts simply coping with the constant barrage of death and violence. Every battle is a game of odds, and the movie deliberately makes this point. They have no agency. The plot is not progressed through the actions of the characters but by the introduction of new horrific weapons and situations inflicted upon them.
For me, the most revolting moments in the film were not the brutal fighting scenes but, rather, the scenes of generals and leaders eating decadent meals while their men die. The sounds and sights of well-dressed leaders chewing through fresh croissants and roast dinners were hard to sit through with the knowledge that men were being massacred in that same instant. These scenes created a pervasive feeling of deep unfairness.
All Quiet on the Western Front’s greatest strength is presenting a war movie without victory. To watch over two hours of mind-numbing cruelty and desperation without ever feeling a moment of triumph is what drives home the senselessness of war. It’s a powerful film, with a message that feels timely and timeless all at once.