The life of the soldier is a simple one in All Quiet on the Western Front. Food is scarce, home is a hole in the dirt, and the probability of death is a harsh reality quickly accepted once the bombs start falling, brushing away once eager young men like dust. Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel, which recounted the author’s experiences as a German soldier, was an immediate success both at home and abroad (though it would later be banned in Nazi Germany), the English title made infamous by the first of several film adaptations (the native moniker Im Westen Nichts Neues translates roughly to “nothing new in the west”) ultimately entering the lexicon as a piteous reminder of the unbending horror of military conflict.
Anti-war statements of the cinema in the subsequent 80 years have occasionally surpassed Lewis Milestone’s technically and artistically groundbreaking film, but few can match it for relentless despair or elemental fury—both on and off the battlefield. Through both the refreshingly unsubtle rendering of its anti-war themes and a pre-Searchers doorway motif that suggests that we view these events as if from naïve, domesticated eyes, Milestone’s film eschews the typically visceral nature of on-screen action, instead supplanting it with a sickening monotony that borders on nauseating, the camera often down in the dirt and mud with the men and every thunderous explosion as shuddering and final as the last. All Quiet on the Western Front may well feature the most ambitious sound design of the early talkies, and while early mixing equipment was technically primitive compared to what moviegoers have experienced for the past decades, such limitations add immeasurably to the artistic fabric of this film; the rawness of the audio eradicates any lingering notion that war is romantic or exciting, and at times suggests the very battered eardrums of those engaged in combat.
The episodic nature and deliberate pace of the film occasionally wants for urgency or purpose in the moment (the soldiers, trained for action, find themselves mostly waiting), but whatever might feel lost in the short run is usually reciprocated by the long-gestating payoff; weeks, months, and eventually whole years unfold at a time, and the total immersion effectively numbs one to their passage. Lewis Ayres anchors the film as Paul Bäumer, through whose sensitive and empathetic eyes most of the story is witnessed. Perhaps the most moving sequence sees him taking cover in a blast crater during a bombardment, knifing a French soldier in self-defense only to later beg his forgiveness as the man dies over the better part of a day. Just as harrowing as the gunfire and shrapnel is the time spent on leave, both official and not: Milestone needs only a well-placed shadow to suggest carnal intimacy between a soldier and a French woman, while the pompous ramblings of Paul’s hometown elders are an infuriating reminder of the ignorance that frequently leads to war in the first place. A Patriotic fogey condescends to the young man’s experiences (“Smash through the Johnnies! And then you will have peace”), but it’s Paul’s impromptu, impossible-to-summarize declaration to a classroom of fresh babes that rings with the timelessness of cutthroat truth.
Remarque’s bitter points about the callous manipulation of the common man were only reinforced when the film was re-released in a freshly propagandized, anti-Nazi version in 1939, or was sentimentalized with music cues added by studio heads in later years, thankfully since removed, or, most interestingly to these eyes, was recognized in the American Film Institute’s 1997 list of the 100 greatest American films—an unnecessary validation for film enthusiasts, but a curious one when one considers that 10 years and two American wars later, it had dropped off the list completely. Hopefully, in another 80 years, we’ll have altogether taken the lessons of the film more to heart. If not, we’ll still have Milestone’s parade of tragic angels trudging into the distance, the heartbreaking final image before a fade to black that must have inspired David Chase for his Sopranos conclusion. All Quiet on the Western Front’s final passage suggests nothing less than an eternity of divine mourning.