During one of the occasional moments of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) that's actually quiet enough to hear someone speak, infantryman Tjaden (Slim Summerville) observes, "Me and the Kaiser, we're both fighting. The only difference is the Kaiser isn't here." A pointed observation in 1930 (and in 2005--but we'll get to that later). Based on Erich Maria Remarque's best-seller, which was published only a year earlier, this is one of those early talkies that underlines the confidence and boldness of American cinema before World War II, in terms of both technique and theme. Despite the period's status as the "Golden Age," there's a bit of a drought that begins with the Breen Office Code of the early '30s and ends with the post-WWII plunge into noir waters, with only intermittent bursts of "darkness visible"--Citizen Kane, of course, but also hard-boiled movies such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in the early '40s, as well as, but oddly enough with lesser effect, the social problem films of Warner Bros.--whose spirit is still essentially reformist/populist rather than radical/existential. No, for real guts and glory, you have to go to the post-Griffith silents and that half-decade before Breen henpecked the movies for twenty years--"Put down that blonde, young man! You don't know where she's been. And if you're going to Tommygun that fellow, I insist you both remain in separate shots." Only Bugs Bunny in drag and an eternally pantsless Porky Pig got away with anything back then.
The viewer's rewards for the venture into pre-Depression American movies are great; All Quiet, for instance, gives you a surprisingly large canvas--think Saving Private Ryan without digital embellishment; the DVD production notes mention that enough TNT was used in All Quiet to wreck Los Angeles, that all 2000 extras were ex-servicemen, and that the camera crew wore German spiked helmets, pickelhauben, after someone was knocked unconscious by flying debris. And it's all there on the screen: the battle scenes are extensive, grueling, and deafening, and filmed with an agile camera that sweeps along with the lines and snaps back as the bodies fall.
The film's deep commitment to spectacle belies an equally unyielding grasp on the earnest anti-war message of Remarque's autobiographical novel. I long ago gave up griping over the heavy-handedness of "message" art, having fought in the trenches myself in grad school with the Marxist-realist and Brechtian-Epic dramatists of the American Depression. Believe you me, that's training: Clifford Odets, Marc (The Cradle Will Rock) Blitzstein, John Dos Passos (before he became a kind of 1940s Jeffersonian neocon), and many others during the 1930s wore their Popular Front kind hearts like sturdy work-clothes while maintaining a level disdain for Kapital's coronets. Some were naive, others opportunistic--Barton Fink gets it about half right--but the best, despite their promise of communism's Eschaton, shared Remarque's convincing combination of frank reportage and broken-hearted dismay. It seems it took Remarque ten years to emerge from the Great War's wreckage. It was a mess, compounded by a willful amnesia, at least on the part of the Allies, if not the resucitating nationalism of Germany. I remember seeing something on TV about French veterans, whose faces had been maimed, wearing prosthetic noses, chins, and ears so as not to offend--but also to help everyone forget an event that, as the film's opening title card states, gave the West a "generation of men who ... were destroyed." It seems Remarque had had enough of mulling it over while the '20s roared toward global depression and the Six-Year Reich and the "burning roof and tower" of Old Europe. And the filmmakers shared his urgency, giving us a movie whose outrage and bitter scorn and pity and sadness pulls us into the trench and between the crosshairs.
I must admit that I had a knee-jerk reaction as I watched All Quiet last Sunday. There's a uncomfortably familiar scene early on in which a schoolteacher exhorts his students to join the march--which is right outside their windows, at first louder than the vigorous speech of the professor, then subsiding to allow us to hear him use the same old language that gets "young men to play old men's games," as my mother defined war (in 1972 or thereabouts, by the way, which cheered me considerably at sixteen years old, with McNamara's fog of war creeping under every doorway; I figured she'd enjoy visiting me in Canada). And of course by the end of his speech the classroom is empty; the camera stays behind and watches through the windows as the boys jauntily join the procession. While one would be hard-pressed in the US to find such calls-to-arms in a classroom these days, the opportunity arises with every recruiting ad, in the dead-end-towns whose jobs have flown south, and in the American guilt over Vietnam that paradoxically leads to "supporting the troops" right back to another fruitless front.
All Quiet's mission is never to let us forget the suffocating irony of such moments; by the end, Remarque's alter-ego, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), stares without recognition at his parents and his home, cuts short his leave, and returns to the trenches, where he is shot without fanfare--true, while reaching for a butterfly (he and his sister used to collect them), in an image that fairly drips with obvious irony and sledge-hammer sensitivity; but after two hours of noise and filth in the service of nothing we can't smirk; we are compelled to leave Paul be, to avert our eyes, as the camera does, so that he can die in peace. It is a simple message, one we always seem too smart to believe; but again, while watching the movie I could not help myself from hearing other old men exhorting young men to play the game--this time dragging Yahweh and Allah and what-all like dead rabbits to train a dog to hunt--for all the right reasons, as unreasonable and vile as they have always been. It's important to note that the men in All Quiet shriek regularly; it is a sound we'd rather not hear, and we try to make it seem silly and simplistic, or fit that shrieking face with a prosthetic. But I think it is an authentic sound, as purposeful as grief and necessary as grace.