G.W. Pabst’s first sound film is an unrelentingly bleak portrait of the enervation and attrition endured by four German infantrymen in the last days of World War I. Westfront 1918 covers some of the same ground (literally and figuratively) as All Quiet on the Western Front, which was also released in 1930, though Pabst’s film is both more intimate and less sentimental than Lewis Milestone’s Hollywood classic. Pabst’s stylistic innovations—especially those long, intricate tracking shots along the tops of the trenches—surely must’ve served as goad and inspiration for Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory.
Westfront 1918 throws us in among the four leads while on a few days’ furlough. There isn’t much to differentiate them beyond stock types: the burly, good-natured Bavarian (Fritz Kampers), the fresh-faced Student (Hans-Joachim Moebis), and the by-the-book Lieutenant (Claus Clausen). Only Karl (Gustav Diessl) is given a name and something resembling a backstory; not surprisingly, it’s him we’ll later accompany on a dismally disenchanting visit to the home front. What’s immediately striking about the opening tableau is the authentically grungy atmosphere of the bombed-out bistro, sculpted in expressive chiaroscuro by cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Equally remarkable is the bracing frankness of the strong language: “Goddamn” appears to be the epithet of choice among these men.
Soon after the quartet returns to the trenches, they’re subject to heavy shelling from their own artillery, one of the more blatant stupidities endemic to this form of trench warfare. These and later battle sequences are staged with credible realism; Pabst shot the film on location outdoors to avoid that familiar feeling of studio-bound falseness, and he used a camera blimp to capture dialogue live in the midst of all those explosions and cascading earthworks. The endlessly roving camera only adds to the feeling of immersion, putting you smack in the middle of this orchestrated chaos.
Karl’s homecoming is no idyll. The economy is in collapse, and citizens must queue up all day just for a chance at acquiring basic necessities. This sets up one of the film’s bitterest ironies: Though Karl’s mother (Else Heller) hears about his return, she can’t forfeit her place in line to go and greet him. The irony is further compounded when Karl, laden with foodstuffs procured off the black market, finds his wife (Hanna Hoessrich) in bed with the butcher’s boy, prostituting herself for a few scraps of meat. Karl can’t bring himself to forgive her, but the film makes her actions entirely understandable.
Westfront 1918 ends in unrelieved carnage on the battlefield and its equally harrowing aftermath. When the mortally injured Karl is taken a field hospital, the camera lingers over the maimed, the maddened, and the slowly expiring—and you can almost smell death in the air. Though Pabst is most closely associated with the New Objectivity movement in German cinema, to which this film’s attention to realistic detail can be attributed, the director wasn’t afraid to get unabashedly expressionistic when the scene called for it. As Karl lays dying on his cot, the lighting on his face abruptly shifts, turning his eyes and mouth into deep pools of shadow, so that his face most eerily resembles a skull. Westfront 1918 might be the first film to conclude with an inconclusive “The End?” title card. Pabst rightly seems to have doubted that the Great War would bring these matters to a close. And, as we know from bitter experience, “the war to end all wars” failed pretty spectacularly in achieving that goal.
Criterion’s 1080p presentation of the 2014 Deutsche Kinematek restoration looks and sounds excellent overall, given the condition of the extant source materials. Grain levels are dense throughout, and there are artifacts evident here and there, scratches and speckling in particular. Fine details stand out reasonably well, though there’s little in the way of image depth. The LPCM mono track is sturdy enough for an early talkie, capturing the dialogue and sound effects, some of which were obviously looped in post-synch.
The archival French TV broadcast from 1969 has French and German veterans of WWI attesting to the film's discomforting verisimilitude. Despite participants' earnest pleas of "never again," the discussion gets a bit fractious, ironically enough, over which country's artillery and ordnance were technologically superior, a sad reminder indeed of the bred-in-the-bone persistence of nationalistic affiliations. Film scholar Jean-Christopher Horak outlines Pabst's working relationship with producer Seymour Nebenzal, gives a thumbnail sketch of the sociopolitical situation in Germany in the late '20s and early '30s, examines many of the film's innovative audiovisual aspects, and concisely contrasts Westfront 1918 with All Quiet on the Western Front.
The restoration demonstration offers a fascinating glimpse into not only the technical aspects of the procedure, but also the logistical and aesthetic decision-making process as well. In a brief snippet of audio interview, editor Jean Oser discusses a controversial scene that wasn't filmed, creating some of the percussive sound effects, and how the film company misled a wealthy landowner into giving them access to his property and stockpiles of military supplies. Finally, Luc Sante's essay in the foldout booklet expands upon some of the same points mentioned in Jean-Christopher Horak's interview.
Westfront 1918 is a stylistically brilliant and relentlessly bleak illustration of the old chestnut about the infernal nature of our more internecine endeavors.