Part horror movie and part war movie, the first German adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s best-selling novel, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, is a devastating portrait of warfare in the Great War, in the process making a definitive antiwar statement.
The movie begins with an incredible sequence showing how the war has become a meat grinder, endlessly cycling young men through it. Back home, Paul, a student, hears the strident call to defend the fatherland from annihilation and eagerly signs up along with his friends. Soon, their romantic ideals about the war are shattered as they are forced to fight in muddy, rat-infested trenches and endless seesawing battles that employed new horrific weapons including tanks, howitzers, flamethrowers, and machine guns. As the war winds down, so does Paul’s circle, and we see him going from fighting to win to merely survive and then finally because there is nothing else, a hollowed-out man who lost faith he is ever going home.
The battle sequences are just incredible in this, more horror than war film. You can feel the hopeless resignation even before the whistles blow to charge, and then when things get going, it’s one horror after another until men are slashing each other hand to hand with trenching tools, showing a war in which industrialization stripped away the last vestiges of humanity in it, while also making it incredibly intimate–men killing each other looking into their eyes, feeling horror and remorse while they do it. This a war movie where the gore isn’t horrifying, it’s the meaning invested in it. How pointless it all was.
As an anti-war statement, it’s all here. The old goading the young into battle with romantic notions, the young losing their innocence in horror. The hubris of commanders who fail to see the soldiers as men but instead chess pieces exchanged for a final bit of national honor. The national humiliation at the end that some historians believe seeded the next war. The breakdown of hope and humanity to a level where the soldiers don’t feel like they will ever get home or will know how to go on living with themselves even if they do.
Overall, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is a distinct, powerful, and utterly savage movie providing a fresh reminder that war is hell.