“When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!”
— Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) in All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
Tonight, I watched the third film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, the 1930 anti-war epic, All Quiet On The Western Front.
All Quiet On The Western Front opens in a German classroom during World War I. Quotes from Homer and Virgil, all exalting heroism, are written on the blackboard. The professor, a man named Kantorek (Arnold Lacy), tells his all-male class that “the fatherland” needs them. (It’s all very patriarchal, needless to say.) This, he tells them, is a time of war. This is a time for heroes. This is a time to fight and maybe die for your country. He beseeches his students to enlist in the army. The first to stand and say that he will fight is Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres). Soon, almost every other student is standing with Paul and cheering the war. Only one student remains seated. Paul and the others quickly turn on that seated student, pressuring him to join them in the army. That seated student finally agrees to enlist, even though he doesn’t want to. Such is the power of peer pressure.
A year later, a visibly hardened Paul returns to his old school. He’s on furlough. He’s been serving in a combat zone, spending his days and nights in a trench and trying not to die. He’s been wounded but he hasn’t been killed. He can still walk. He can still speak. He hasn’t gone insane. He is one of the few members of his class to still be alive. (That student who didn’t want to enlist? Long dead.) When Kantorek asks Paul to speak to his new class, Paul looks at the fresh-faced students — all of whom have just listened to Kantorek describe the glories of war — and Paul tells them that serving in the army has not been an adventure. It has not made him a hero. The only glory of war is surviving. “When it comes to dying for one’s country, it’s better not to die at all!” Kantorek is horrified by Paul’s words but he needn’t have worried. The students refuse to listen to Paul, shouting him down and accusing him of cowardice and treason.
(This scene is even more disturbing today, considering that we live in a time when accusations of treason and calls for vengeance are rather cavalierly tossed around by almost everyone with a twitter account.)
What happened between those two days in the classroom is that Paul saw combat. He spent nights underground while shells exploded over his head. He watched as all of his friends died, one by one. One harrowing night, spent in a trench with a French soldier who was slowly dying because of Paul stabbing him, nearly drove Paul insane. In the end, not even his friend and mentor, Kat (Louis Wolheim), would survive. From the first sound of bombs exploding to the film’s haunting final scene, the shadow of death hangs over every minute of All Quiet On The Western Front. By the end of it all, all that Paul has learned is that men like Kantorek and the buffoonish Corporal Himmelstoss (John Wray) have no idea what real combat is actually like.
All Quiet On The Western Front may be 87 years old but it’s still an incredibly powerful film. There are certain scenes in this pre-code film that, after you watch them, you have to remind yourself that this film was made in 1929. I’m not just talking about a swimming scene that contains a split second of nudity or a few lines of dialogue that probably wouldn’t have made it past the censors once the production code started to be enforced. Instead, I’m talking about scenes like the one where a bomb goes off just as a soldier attempts to climb through some barbed wire. When the smoke clear, only his hands remains. And then there’s the sequence where the camera rapidly pans by soldier after soldier falling dead as they rush the trenches. Or the scene where Paul literally watches as one of his friends, delirious and out-of-his-mind, suddenly dies. Or the montage where a pair of fancy boots is traded from one doomed soldier to another, with each soldier smiling at his new boots before, seconds later, laying dead in the mud. Or the harrowing scene where Paul tries to keep a French soldier from dying.
All Quiet On The Western Front remains a powerful film. It’s perhaps not a surprise that, when it briefly played in Germany, the Nazis released live mice in the theaters to try to keep away audiences. (Both the film and the book on which it was based were later banned by the Nazi government.) Sadly, we’ll never get to see All Quiet On The Western Front the way that it was originally meant to be seen. A huge hit in 1930, All Quiet On The Western Front was rereleased several times but, with each rerelease, the film was often edited to appease whatever the current political climate may have been. Over the years, much footage was lost. The original version of All Quiet On The Western Front was 156 minutes long. The version that is available today is 131 minutes long. But even so, it remains a harrowing and powerful antiwar statement.
With all due respect to both Wings and Broadway Melody, All Quiet On The Western Front was the first truly great film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Sadly, it remains just as relevant today as when it was first released.