I wouldn’t normally have gone and watched the silent movies on this List simply because they’re more like historical artifacts, at this point, than pieces of entertainment, and so I definitely felt moved and enchanted whenever watching a particularly good one (like Dr. Mabuse or Intolerance or Sherlock Jr) because I could say, with certainty, that I wouldn’t have seen it if not for the List. But for some reason it’s this movie, All Quiet on the Western Front, that feels like the most stirring example yet of a movie that — given its title (flowery), subject matter (war), its era (1930s) and duration (over two hours) — I would never have watched on my own but, holy shit, it’s great. I love it. Felt this super sentimental sense of debt toward the List for having given it to me.
This was the third movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Rightly so. It does seem strange, however, that it should’ve gotten such a mainstream accolade while being so brutal. I mentioned my love/hate infatuation with Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room in an earlier post because it was totally riveting from about the twenty-minute mark to the last frame, I was hypnotized, but it was also really unpleasant: super gory, claustrophobic, tons of screaming and awful deaths. It’s a lot to handle. All Quiet on the Western Front is obviously way less violent, and it’s maybe not as visceral as Green Room, but in a strange way it’s just as disturbing.
The Haye’s Code, which censored movies so that, famously, a man and woman — even if their characters were married — had to sleep in separate beds onscreen (amid other draconian standards), wasn’t really enforced until 1934. So yeah, profanity is still anathema at this point in cinema (somebody in the movie is referred to as a “son of a frog’s leg”) but the battle scenes, lacking though they are in gore and vulgarity, somehow communicate the fucking psychotic horror of trench warfare with what I imagine is some approximation of accuracy (the director, Lewis Milestone, was a veteran).
Maybe the most powerful scene is the first time we see a wave of troops pour into a trench full of German soldiers, piles of men, hacking at and bludgeoning one another with shovels and bayonettes and knives and all of them wounded, all of them screaming, limbs tangled among students and storeowners and barbers and craftsmen, civilized people, who were nothing but average citizens until the government told them to come out here and cut each other open, to stomp the skull of a foreigner, to sleep in the mud so that their limbs took to rotting and to shit and sleep in the same spot, amongst each other, in the company of rats, amid poison gas, to starve and give limbs, suffer, bleed and cry and become a facsimile of whoever they were before.
I guess the way that this movie manages to be brutal without gore is because the characters are so wonderfully developed, and everything they suffer hits the audience harder. This is where I think Sergei Eisenstein fucked up. Because Battleship Potemkin and October are just as propagandistic as All Quiet on the Western Front (the former two being pro-state socialist propaganda while the latter is anti-war) except with Eisenstein’s movies we don’t give a salted fuck abut any of the characters. And yes this movie might be naive in how it depicts all countrymen as friendly to each other and there’s no hazing, no obscenity, but the movie also doesn’t seem to pull punches with its depictions of battle, how it mangles men’s minds and bodies. I think the two most endearing characters are the avuncular Kat, played by Louis Wolheim, the most nurturing and huggable dude, the ideal mentor in this kinda situation, and of course our protagonist, Paul, played by the young Lew Ayres with lighthearted idealism. That rosy disposition shifts gradually, beautifully, persuasively throughout the movie until finally, in the last frame, this character we met as a starry-eyed kid is now a warbroken man who can’t be comfortable in silence, in civilian life, and has come to feel at home only in the place he hates. Like some Devil’s courtship, the familiarity of war lures him back.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a brutal, sensitive, moving masterpiece. I’m really glad I’ve seen it here, because I don’t suppose I ever would have sat for it otherwise.