The weapons of war are terrifying inventions that bring only pain. Heck, we remember a few teary-eyed moments from our youthful Nerf gun battles, and those are the toy versions of these weapons.
As for reminiscing on the true weapons of war, we'll let Erich Maria Remarque do the talking:
Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades—words, words, but they hold the horror of the world. (6.150)
While words can grasp at the horrors of war, they can never fully express them. Reading about war can only hint at the devastation of battle: only through experience can you truly understand.
Like Remarque's listing of words, Milestone's adaptation of All Quiet attempts to grasp at war's horrors through a visual medium…knowing full well that you can only use art to begin to touch the hellscape of war.
The director's goal was to depict the ghastly injures and death these weapons dealt. And, while the film's imagery might not totally encompass the real experience, it's pretty dang unsettling.
The major weapons featured in the movie are rifles, shells, bombs, barbed wire, machine guns, and hand-to-hand armaments such as knives, bayonets, and spades. (Yeah, we know: spades are technically meant for digging, but in war anything that will get the job done counts.)
In short: there's a whole lot of weaponry on display in All Quiet on the Western Front. A lot.
Even by today's standards, the battles scenes are super gruesome, even with black-and-white blood. Machine guns mow down lines of men. Soldiers trip over barbed wire, shredding their flesh in the process. The hand-to-hand combat scene in the trenches is harrowing—watching swarms of men stab, slash, and beat each other in claustrophobic quarters ain't fun.
(We suggest that you follow up your viewing of All Quiet with a nice binge of Disney classics. No one gets dismembered in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.)
So why is All Quiet on the Western Front so war-tech happy? Why not just have a few rifles and be done with it?
History, friends. There's a reason why the Lost Generation was so lost—they grappled with the horrific technology that had just been made possible at the beginning of WWI.
Tanks and airplanes made their wartime debut during the First World War.
Kat mentions both to Paul while discussing the Germans' struggles to defend their lines:
KAT: They've got dozens of airplanes to our one and tanks that'll go over anything. What've we got left? Guns so worn they drop shells on our own men. No food, no ammunition, no officers. Push on to Paris. So that's the way they talk back there. I guess we'd better be going.
Kat is then killed by an air raid.
Although this high war-tech is mentioned in the film, we don't actually see a lot of it in action. This was likely due to technical limitations…but it also could have been because the local Rent-a-Center was fresh out of Mark Vs.
No, we're not talking about a friendly game of Boggle or Scrabble. We're not even talking about unfriendly games of manipulation, gaslighting, or gossip. We're talking about the searing damage of wartime trauma. This ain't PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)—what we see in All Quiet on the Western Front is straight-up TSD.
Beyond the physical violence, Milestone also focuses on the psychological trauma the weapons of WWI reaped. During Paul's first stint on the Front, we begin to see the mental toll they have on the soldiers:
KAT: Didn't I tell you this was gonna be a bad one?
PAUL: I don't mind the days so much. It's keeping up all night that's—
KAT: Two more days makes a week, kid. Then you can say you've been under fire.
SOLDIER: You're not scared, are you?
PAUL: No. I was just asking, that's all.
Just imagine it: an entire week of no sleep because of the constant noise of bombs going off near. Worse, you never know when one of those shells will hit. And there's nothing you can do about it—it's all up to chance, a game of rolling dice with the Grim Reaper.
Kind of obvious how such a situation would degrade your mental health, isn't it?
Kemmerick suffers even worse than Paul, mentally eroding to the point that he tries to leave the safety of the dugout:
[A soldier screams.]
[Bomb explodes. Bunker fills with dirt.]
KEMMERICK: Let me out!
[Kat punches him.]
Other cases of mental anguish displayed in All Quiet include Paul's depression over killing the French soldier and Albert's suicidal longing after learning his leg has been amputated.
Historically, this condition became known as "shell shock," and it followed WWI veterans home, tormenting them long after they left the battlefields behind. As noted by Caroline Alexander, the term "shell shock" first appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1915 and was thought to be the result of "suffering from a remarkable state of shock caused by blast force" (source).
In other words, it was a physical condition caused by "severe concussive motion of the shaken brain in the soldier's skull." Hence the name.
Today we know the result is psychological, not physiological, and the term "shell shock" has been replaced with the more accurate "combat neurosis," a "personality disturbance that represents a response to the stress of war." While symptoms vary, they include depression, nightmares, and bereavement-type reactions—in other words, feeling guilty you survived when others bought the farm (source).
You'll notice all these symptoms are present in Milestone's film:
The violence of the battlefield may create the most disturbing spectacle, but Milestone's careful not to limit his anti-war message to mud 'n' blood. Although less visceral, the combat neurosis suffered by the Front's soldiers is no less destructive, and Milestone takes the time to show his audience the damage war causes in all its nasty facets.
No Man's Land is not the kind of place you want to hang out—but we're guessing you figured that out when you saw that it was called "No Man's Land."
It's a place so hellish that even Virgil wouldn't do personal tours of the place. Due to constant bombardments and barrages of men advancing into machine-gun fire, No Man's Land is a nightmarescape of mud, shell holes, gnarled barbed wire, splintered trees, and, of course, corpses scattered about like seeds thrown onto a field.
To really get a feel for the awfulness of No Man's Land, consider Paul's experience during the German offensive. The church—a holy place where men are meant to gather to worship—is blasted into ruins. The graveyard next to it is hit with shells, literally raising the dead from their graves to mingle among the living.
When Paul takes cover in the crater, he's forced to stab a French soldier. He then attempts to comfort the solider by providing him a drink, but all he has to offer is muddied, bloody water lying stagnant at the bottom of the crater. Even a basic, life-sustaining necessity such as clean water is absent within No Man's Land.
In comparison, when the soldiers take leave from the Front, they're often surrounded by pastoral nature. They eat their fill of beans and bread and lie beneath a tree that remains intact rather than uprooted by shell blasts. You know times are tough when "beans and bread" sounds delicious and "intact tree" is a surprising perk.
Another time, the Paul and his comrades find a river to bathe in. With more than enough water to drink, the soldiers get to clean away the dirt and grime that covers them during their time at the Front. Again: these dudes aren't psyched about getting a hot bath filled with Mr. Bubble. They're excited by a cold river.
The differences in the landscape help show how the soldiers' states of mind change—it's all location, location, location. Away from the Front, the landscape can provide the physical needs of the soldier, allowing him to turn his attention to more social considerations. He can discuss the purpose and worth of the war, take care of his body by eating and bathing…and even mac on hawt French girls.
But every aspect of No Man's Land requires the solider to focus on survival, and only survival. Every broken tree, muddied crater, and bombed-out building reminds us that death is an ever-present danger—death of the soldiers, death of nature, death of everything.
Well, expect for disease. Those microorganisms are living it up.
The excitement of new shoes is hardly reserved for Carrie Bradshaw. From sneakerheads presented with Nike Foamposites to your weird aunt presented with a comfy new pair of Birks (to be worn with socks, naturally), everyone likes lifting the top off a box of brand-new kicks.
Including German soldiers during WWI. The boots in question have have Italian leather, comfy insoles, the works. The catch? The previous owner was gunned down while wearing them. The owner before him? Blown up. The owner before the owner before him? Shredded by shrapnel.
It sounds like the subject of a horror movie—The Sole Reaper?—but it's actually just the story behind Kemmerick's boots in All Quiet.
We're first introduced to this jinxed pair of footwear when Kemmerick parades them about during boot camp. He places them jokingly on Mueller's shoulders:
MUELLER: Say, keep your boots out of my face.
KEMMERICK: Why it's an honor to have those boots in your face. They're the best pair in the army. My uncle gave them to me. Just look at that special imported leather.
MUELLER: Put them anyplace you like, except in my face.
Since the army lives on its feet, a soldier needs proper boots for the long marches and days of work—especially on the Western Front. Between the mud and unhygienic conditions, soldiers require good boots to prevent blisters, frostbite, and foot fungus. In other words, Kemmerick's uncle had his back.
Later, Kemmerick's wounded by shrapnel. As he lies dying in a field hospital, Paul and his friends visit him and Mueller notices the boots. Mueller asks Kemmerick if he can have the boots, since he won't need them.
As the group leaves, Mueller confesses to Paul:
"I'm sorry, Paul. I wouldn't touch a thing of his if he could use it. I'd go barefoot over barbed wire for him if it'd do him any good. Only why should some orderly get those boots?"
Mueller's confession shows us how the war has changed these young men. Mueller has to think about his survival at all times. Although asking for the boots upsets Kemmerick—it's basically the equivalent of saying "Hey, Kendrick. You're gonna die!"—Mueller's right.
Kemmerick can't use the boots, but another solider can. In fact, new kicks could save another soldier's life—festering foot wounds were a real threat. We see that survival has to always be at the forefront in a soldier's mind, sacrificing more "civilized" considerations such as decorum and thoughtfulness.
In the end, Kemmerick does die, and Paul takes the boots for Mueller. Mueller's shown proudly marching with his new boots, but he's injured during an offensive in No Man's Land. Next, we see Peter marching in the boots—and then Peter's shown being killed while going over the top.
At the end of the day, new boots can't save you. They just mean that you'll die in style.
If Kantorek's case of crazy eye didn't distract you too much, you might have noticed the writing on the blackboard behind him.
The phrase he's scrawled there is the first line of Homer's The Odyssey. For those of us who don't speak Greek, the line roughly translates to:
Tell me, oh Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide. (Source)
(The remainder of the epic poem's opening line—"after he sacked the famous town of Troy"—is notably absent from Kantorek's blackboard.)
This line supports Kantorek's worldview and provides us an insight into his militaristic fervor. Having been raised on the classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Kantorek sees war as something glorious, an event where nations invest young men and get worldly, ingenious heroes.
And Kantorek's own words follow a similar ideal:
KANTOREK: Here is a glorious beginning for your lives. The field of honor calls you.
Of course he believes that. His experience of war comes from the ancient Greeks, who didn't exactly like to write epic poems about losers or dead men. Odysseus went to war and then had an epic poem written about him—the man was trending millennia before trending was even a thing.
No one likes rats…with the exception of that Great American hero, Pizza Rat. But there's a world of difference between a subway-dwelling rodent with a love of classic NYC slices and Oscar, the bread-munching rat that hangs out with our soldiers.
Oscar chews on a piece of the soldiers' bread, and Kat throws his shoe at the little beastie. While Kat tosses the bread aside, Tjaden retorts:
"Don't be so snooty. You may wish you had this back. About two more days of this and this rat-bitten end of a piece of bread's gonna taste just like a hunk of fruitcake."
We don't think of rats as being so brazen about snatching food from people (Pizza Rat probably just found his slice in a trashcan), but in the trenches, the humans have entered the rats' world…and we don't mean a magical Secret of NIMH-type world either. It's the world of survival—kill or be killed; eat or be eaten.
Later, the men are starving and Kat returns from foraging with stale bread and no butter—the same food, you'll note, that Oscar foraged from the soldiers earlier. Rats come pouring into their dugout and the soldiers begin killing them with their spades. Immediately afterward, the Allied offensive starts, and we see the soldiers fighting in the trenches. They use all manner of hand-to-hand weapons to kill each other, including the same spades they used to kill the rats.
The contrast shows us the equalizing of man and beast as a result of the war. Both live in holes; both forage for food; both fight, kill, and bite to survive. The film suggests that we shouldn't talk about "dogs of war" so much as "rats of war."
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Paul's hometown in Germany represents the ordinary world in his story. Although the war is present in the beginning of the film (all those marching soldiers), we aren't seeing the reality of war yet.
The soldiers provide a grand, joyous spectacle for the townsfolk, and the soldiers step proudly in their fresh, clean uniforms. Herr Meyer's quip to Himmelstoss that "War is war and schnapps is schnapps, but business must go on" informs us that the devastation of the Front has yet to affect this place.
During our brief stay in the ordinary world, we also learn about Paul. We first meet him in a classroom, so we know he's young. We also learn that he has dreams and a love of literature when Kantorek notes that Paul has written the first act of a tragedy and hopes to follow in the footsteps of the great German writers Schiller and Goethe.
Kantorek's lecture is a literal call to adventure; he flat-out says,
KANTOREK: But now our country calls. The fatherland needs leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country.
After a rousing bit of schoolhouse propaganda, Paul agrees to enlist along with his friends Albert, Mueller, Peter, Leer, and Kemmerick. Behm's reluctant to go, but some teenage peer pressure serves as his call to adventure.
And by adventure we, of course, mean war…which we'll learn is no adventure at all.
Paul's basic training serves as his refusal of the call.
But we mean "refusal" in a really specific way. At no point does Paul say, "Yeah, you know, I don't think I'm feeling this whole war thing. I've decided to take up crochet instead." That's called desertion, and some people were executed for that during WWI—regardless of their mastery of the half double stitch.
Paul's "refusal" is more of a "second guessing." When he and his friends arrive at boot camp, they gleefully discuss the ranks and great deeds they'll achieve in the army.
Instead, boot camp shows them war won't be glorious. Himmelstoss's cruelty and the constant crawling through the mud make them long for the ordinary world they left behind.
Dispatched to the Western Front, Paul and his friends join the 2nd Company. There, they meet Tjaden, Detering, and Westhus, but it's Kat who will be Paul's mentor.
Kat agrees to feed the new recruits if they can pay (not with money but cigarettes, cognac, and soap). It may look like he's fleecing them—because he technically is—but he's teaching them important lessons, too, such as what items are valuable at the Front and that nothing is for free.
And, throughout the film, he provides advice and comfort for Paul.
Paul fully crosses the threshold from the ordinary world to the world of war when the 2nd Company is sent to the Front to string barbed wire. While performing their task, they're hit with a bombardment. Shrapnel blinds Behm, and in a painful panic, he dashes into enemy fire.
Paul and his friends suffer their first loss, taste a sample of the dangers awaiting them, and have grown from recruits to soldiers.
For Paul, this stage is represented by the week-long bombardment and the ensuing defensive. He gains allies as the old war dogs come to respect his ability to remain cool under fire. Even Westhus, who Paul upset earlier, says, "The kid's all right."
Paul also undergoes many tests. He endures extreme hunger. He watches Kemmerick develop combat neurosis, resulting in him running from the dugout and taking some shrapnel in the stomach. Paul must also learn to keep a clear head under constant shelling (or, at least, as clear a head as is humanly possible).
Finally, Paul learns who his enemies are. And, weirdly enough, these enemies aren't the Allied Forces. Instead, the enemies are the many impersonal ways a soldier can be killed or injured on the Front—from bombardments to barbed wire, machine-gun fire to starvation.
There's no actual cave in All Quiet. In the hero's journey, the cave represents a moment of "terrible danger" and "an inner conflict," and the approach is a moment of rest and reflection before continuing on the treacherous road.
When Paul and the 2nd Company are relieved from the Front, Paul's unknowingly approaching his personal cave.
The company eats its fill and reflects on how wars begin. Paul also visits Kemmerick in the hospital and watches his friend die painfully. It is Paul's most personal experience with death so far, and he reflects that his own life could end just as easily.
The next offensive becomes Paul's most difficult ordeal. The counter-bombardment is fierce, and Paul's injured in a graveyard, forcing him to take shelter in a bombed-out grave, which: yikes. Apparently the only safe place in No Man's Land is among the dead.
When the counter-attack comes, Paul hides in a crater. A French soldier seeks refuge in the same crater, and Paul stabs the man. Caught under crossfire, Paul must spend the day and night with the slowly dying soldier.
This becomes Paul's greatest ordeal: the stress and grief from witnessing the man's suffering at his hands proves traumatizing.
Paul tries to help the soldier but fails. Paul breaks down and cries, begging the corpse for forgiveness.
The reward for Paul's ordeal is new insight into the nature of the war. The first half of this insight comes when he is begging the French soldier's corpse for forgiveness:
PAUL: You see, when you jumped in here, you were my enemy and I was afraid of you. But you're just a man like me, and I killed you. Forgive me, comrade.
When Paul returns to the German lines, he falls into depression, and Kat provides solace. Kat provides Paul with second half of his insight:
KAT: You couldn't do anything about it. We have to kill. We can't help it. That's what we are here for.
The lesson results in a no-win situation: he doesn't want to kill his enemy, but if he doesn't, he'll be killed himself.
The road back returns Paul to the ordinary world he left in the beginning. Only for Paul, it won't be as easy as taking the bus.
During a bombardment, he and Albert are injured. While staying in a Catholic hospital, Paul fears he'll die from hemorrhaging but manages to recover. After his recovery, he's provided a furlough to return home. Albert, on the other hand, has his leg amputated and sinks into a deep, suicidal depression.
During this stage, a traditional hero would meet his "most dangerous encounter with death." But Paul returns to his childhood home and encounters…his neighbors. The townsfolk aren't dangerous in any physical sense, but their ignorance of the truth of the war is seriously terrifying.
Paul's father's friends insist they know how to obtain a swift and decisive victory, and Kantorek's still teaching his propaganda to a new classroom of young men. When Paul tries to tell his father's friends the truth, they ignore him. When he tries to tell the classroom the truth, they call him a coward.
In the end of this stage, Paul encounters a metaphorical death. He accepts that Paul, the young man he was at the film's beginning, has died. He has been resurrected as Paul the soldier.
During this stage, the hero returns to the ordinary world he left. In a twist, Paul does this, but his ordinary world's become the Western Front. As he tells Kat:
PAUL: Oh, I'm no good for back there anymore, Kat. None of us are. We've been in this too long.
While the return home is usually a cause for celebration, All Quiet doesn't provide such a jubilant ending. Kat's killed soon after reuniting with Paul, and Paul himself is killed soon after that.
It's a tragic—but all too typical—end to the story of many WWI soldiers.
The setting in All Quiet on the Western Front is split between two extremes: Paul's childhood hometown and the Western Front during the years of trench warfare. Sounds pretty simple, right? War is horror and home is where the heart his is. You can probably knock this one out in your sleep.
But don't hit the snooze button just yet. All Quiet has some interesting tweaks to the typical clichés.
The main setting of the film is the Western Front of World War I where Paul and his comrades fight during the prolonged stalemate of trench warfare. In the film, the setting shows how war can turn something as familiar as the French countryside into a dangerous and almost alien landscape—think Mad Max with even more deaths and fewer tricked-out war rigs.
Milestone created his Western Front on a huge California ranch, and the results are stunning, Shell holes dot the landscape and what trees stand are soon splintered and broken. No plants can grow in the muddy fields; barbed wire spreads across the fields like thorny weeds. And of course there's a literal army of the dead spread between the two lines.
Like astronauts exploring an alien planet, the soldiers must actively consider every activity and quality of the world to survive. Just consider Kat's speech to Paul and his friends during their first night on the Front:
KAT: That kind of shell you don't have to pay much attention to. Those big fellows just make a lot of noise and land about five miles behind the line. The things we've got to watch out for are the light ones. They don't give you much warning. They go "waah zing." And when you hear that, down! Mother Earth. Press yourselves down upon her. Bury yourselves deep into her. Just keep your eyes on me. When you see me flop, you flop. Only, try to beat me to it.
Just imagine having to consider every sound and developing the instincts necessary to deal with them. What a horrific place.
Reminders of death abound. Paul sees friends get shot, and watches as shrapnel tears them apart. Even marching to the Front reminds us of the proliferation of death—just check out the pine coffins lining the path. Of course, humans are highly adaptable, and given time, they can adapt to almost any environment. Just consider this exchange:
SOLDIER 1: Have a look. Nice, new coffins.
SOLDIER 2: For us.
PAUL: I must say, that's a very cheerful preparation for this offensive.
ALBERT: That's very considerate of them. But I don't see any long enough for our comrade, Tjaden.
The most terrifying quality of the Front isn't the visage of death it presents but the fact that the characters—and, in time, the audience—become accustomed to such a view.
Like Remarque's novel, Milestone chose to not provide the viewer with much historical information about the setting. We know it takes place on the Western Front because the Germans are fighting the French in trench warfare, and we know it's World War I because…obviously.
But Milestone doesn't tell us what year Paul joins the army, which battles his various offenses and defenses are a part of, or where on the Front the 2nd Company is deployed. We can be pretty sure that Paul joins early in the war, likely in 1914. This can be surmised by Kantorek's claim,
KANTOREK: I believe it will be a quick war, that there will be few loses.
By late 1914, after the Battle of Ypres, mobile warfare ended on the Western Front and trench warfare began, resulting in a stalemate that would last for the next three and a half years. Belief in a "quick war" evaporated by 1915 (source).
We can also guess that Paul survived until almost the end of the war. As Paul tells Kantorek during his furlough:
PAUL: Three years we've had of it—four years! And every day a year, and every night a century.
If he did join in 1914, then that would mean he dies in 1918, the final year of the war.
But that's really all we get, so we have to ask: why did Milestone choose to limit the amount of historical information in the setting? And the answer to that question is wide open to interpretation.
Our answer is that Milestone was trying to show the soldier's war, not the historian's war. For a historian, war is about dates, the names of battles, and the body counts on both sides to determine who won and who lost.
But for the soldier, the date doesn't matter, the name of the battle is of no consequence, and the body count only matters if you or your comrades are among the bodies. For Paul, the war is about survival, not how history will remember it.
When we first see Paul's hometown, its residents proudly cheer the marching soldiers to war and discuss how great the German army is. After seeing what Paul experiences, you'd imagine they'd change their tune by the time he returns.
When Paul returns to his hometown, the people are still discussing the valiant war effort, how Germany can secure glory, and the heroism found in being a soldier. Perhaps the most telling example of this is the exchange between Paul and his father's friend:
GENTLEMAN 1: Now, then, there's the line. Runs so, in a "V." Here is St. Quentin. You can see for yourself. You're almost through now. All right? Shove ahead out there and don't stick to that everlasting trench warfare. Smash through the Johnnies! And then you will have peace.
PAUL: When you get in it, the war isn't the way it looks back here.
GENTLEMAN 1: You don't know anything about it. Of course, you know about the details, but this relates to the whole. And you can't judge that. Of course, you do your duty and you risk your life. But for that, you receive the highest honor.
How can Mr. "Gentleman 1" be that ignorant? Mostly because he—like his fellow townsfolk—doesn't want to see the truth. For the townspeople, the war's a great exercise in national pride. They just need to give the Frenchies a good licking, and then everything'll come up Milhouse. (Or, because they're German, maybe that would be Milhaus.)
The town isn't provided a name in the film, and we're guessing that's to give it an "every-place" feel. This could be any small town in Germany during the war years.
In fact, it's so anonymous that it could be almost any hometown of any young man fighting on the Western Front. The classroom of friends, the worried mother, the postman who knows everyone in town, and the proud father and his drinking buddies—these are relatable to the British, French, Russian, and American viewers as much as the German ones.
As a result, Paul's hometown helps make Paul relatable—he's a German soldier, but he's an everyman, too.
Remarque's novel starts with Paul and his company on break from the Western Front, and Kemmerick down and out in the field hospital.
Since the novel's told in first-person narrative by Paul, it can jump around through time to let us know how he and his fellow soldiers wound up serving in the German army.
Given that Milestone's goal with All Quiet was to show the experiences of WWI soldiers as accurately as he could portray them, a first-person narrative wasn't really going to cut it. No voice in the sky informs us about Paul's exploits, because no (sane) soldier goes around narrating his life to an unseen audience.
For the film, the narrative structure was retooled to serve Milestone's needs. We follow Paul and his friends through the events of the war in chronological order. We start with them as young men in school, see them through boot camp, witness their first horrifying days at the Front, and discover them to be old war dogs by the film's conclusion. (Those who survive, at least.)
Interestingly, Milestone doesn't provide any narrative signposts for us to follow. No title card informs us of the date or where the battle's being fought. Milestone chooses not to let his audience know if Paul is fighting in the Battle of Mons or the Battle of Verdun.
If we had to guess why, we'd say it goes back to his desire to show the war from the soldier's perspective. The names and dates of a battle show war through the eyes of a historian—for a soldier, names and dates of battles don't matter at the time. The only thing that matters is surviving the battle at hand, and helping to ensure your fellow soldiers survive as well.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a war movie's war movie…at least when it comes to the subject matter. It depicts the events of WWI as seen through the eyes of a German grunt on the ground, Paul Bäumer. The story shows his training, the battles he fights, and the friends he loses along the way.
But in tone, All Quiet's an anti-war movie.
Paul and the 2nd Company aren't portrayed as heroes. While they certainly act courageously, they lack the pizzazz of, say, John Matrix in Commando. Instead, Paul's traumatized by his participation in the war. Killing the French soldier sinks him into depression. His friends fare no better, with fates ending in shellshock, amputation, or death.
All Quiet starts like a classic coming-of-age story. We have a school full of young men, each with a goal and dream, and they go on an adventure to find themselves and grow up.
But while they certainly grow up, the result is not boys who become men but boys who become soldiers. Their experiences at the Western Front leave them bitter, broken, and world-weary. Many of them die while still boys, never having the opportunity to come of age.
When Paul finally returns home, he finds he isn't a man ready to enter society but a soldier unable to join the civilian world because of what he's seen on the Front.
While none of the characters in All Quiet have real-life counterparts, the film is historical fiction. Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote the novel the film was based on, fought in WWI, and his book is a fictional account of his experiences. While the names may be fictional, the experiences of the characters are not: this film recreates the suffering of soldiers fighting on the Western Front.
Interestingly, the film doesn't provide much historical context. Title cards don't pop up to clarify the date or tell the audience what battle is being fought. These artifacts of historical fiction are done away with since the story is told from Paul's perspective rather than that of a historian's. For Paul, it doesn't matter what day it is, or what battle's being fought.
What matters is surviving the day (and the battle).
The film All Quiet on the Western Front was named after the novel it was based on…which just happens to be titled All Quiet on the Western Front. Easy, right?
Sure is. But the question we have to ask ourselves is, "Why was the novel given that title in the first place?"
The phrase comes from the final passage of the book. When Paul's killed, we receive two brief paragraphs detailing his fate. They are:
He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: all quiet on the Western Front.
He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come. (12.12-13)
A "front" is contested land between enemy forces in a war or conflict. WWI's Western Front was the area in France where German and Austrian-Hungarian forces engaged the Allied Powers, including France, the United States, and the British Empire. The war's other fronts included the Eastern Front and the Southern theaters.
As we mention in our discussion of the novel, journalists would often report—with the government's support—that "all was quiet." The phrase was a euphemism, a reassuring way of saying they had nothing to report.
The novel annexes this phrase and uses it ironically as its title. Even on days with nothing major to report, shells still fell, shots were still fired, and men still suffered and died. For the soldiers, bent and broken in the trenches, the Front was never quiet. Remarque points out this fact earlier in the novel:
[Memories] are quiet in this way, because quietness is so unattainable for us now. At the front there is no quietness and the curse of the front reaches so far that we never pass beyond it. (7.99)
Only for Paul is this euphemism true. His death has finally brought him the peace and quiet he longed for. His face, looking "as though sleeping," tells us as much. The phrase meant to assuage civilians at home has become a tragic truth for Paul…even while he becomes a quiet memory.
We should note that the novel's German title is Im Westen nichts Neues, which translates to "Nothing New in the West." Like the English phrase, the German title comes from the army's report at the novel's conclusion.
It isn't hard to see the irony behind this title either, showing us how war takes the tragedy of a young man's death and makes it commonplace.
Lewis Milestone began his film career in the silent era, and the ending of All Quiet on the Western Front shows his mastery of that form. Without expending a word, Milestone says all he needs to say about the effects of war.
Before we discuss what is up with the ending, let's break it down:
After Kat's death, Paul returns to the trenches, visibly depressed at having lost a true friend. Looking beyond his gunner's nest, Paul spies a butterfly just out of reach. Despite knowing better, Paul exposes himself trying to reach the butterfly and is shot by a French sniper. He dies off-screen. We only see his hand flinch at the shot and then lie still in the mud.
The ending is a summation of what the movie has been saying its entire runtime: war isn't glorious—it destroys and kills.
The inclusion of the butterfly is original to the film. What it symbolizes and why Paul exposes himself to reach for it is left open for the viewer to interpret. We know, however, that Paul collected butterflies as a child, since he and his sister reminisce fondly over his collection at home:
PAUL: I remember when you caught that [butterfly].
ANNA: Yes. And you took it away from me, didn't you?
PAUL: Yes, I did.
But that's all the information we get to connect Paul with the imagery of the butterfly, and it leaves the viewer a lot of interpretive blank space to get creative with.
For example, the butterfly could symbolize the home Paul remembers, and his reaching for it an attempt to reconnect with the world he left behind for the Front. Or could the butterfly simply represent Paul's attempt to obtain something beautiful in his life again, beyond the muck and mire of the trenches.
Then again, maybe the butterfly represents metamorphosis and Paul's reaching for it symbolizes his desire to change himself. Remember when Himmelstoss said, "You're going to be soldiers, and that's all!"? Maybe Paul's trying to change into something more than the soldier the war has required him to become.
The final scene of the film returns to an earlier scene when the boys were marching to the front to string barbed wire. This time, the image is superimposed over a shot of a graveyard.
The boy's march parallels the film's opening, when the soldiers were gallantly marching through town. This time though, there are no crowds cheering, no swelling music, and no sense of national pride. Only silence hangs over the boys' ghostly images as they march toward their own deaths.
This final image subverts Kantorek's lecture from the film's beginning:
KANTOREK: I believe it will be a quick war, that there will be few losses. But if losses there must be, then let us remember the Latin phrase, which must have come to the lips of many a Roman when he stood embattled in a foreign land, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland.
Now that we've reached the end of the story, we know the losses weren't few and no fancypants Latin phrase seems fitting enough to compensate. Clearly it's neither sweeter nor fitting for young men to die.
Here's the thing: All Quiet on the Western Front isn't actually rated.
Older movies have a reputation for being mild compared to the movies of today—but this perception of cinema's era of so-called innocence is the result of a censored chapter in history known as the Hays Code (source).
The Production Code of 1930—a.k.a. the Hays Code—was a set of moral guidelines Hollywood used to self-police its content from 1930 to 1968. The code contained rules against nudity, profanity, violence, ridicule of the clergy, and sexual relations between couples of different races.
In addition to being horribly offensive, it was also silly.
The code contained prohibitions against scenes depicting married couples sharing the same bed or engaging in lustful kissing—apparently couples were allowed to be in love but not actually enjoy the relationship (source).
The code was adopted the same year that All Quiet on the Western Front debuted, but it wasn't strictly enforced until a few years later, giving Milestone the chance he needed to depict the horrors of war.
And they are definitely depicted.
The violence and psychological torment suffered by its characters remain gripping more than eighty years later. In one scene, a soldier falls and grabs some barbed wire right when a bomb explodes on top of him. When the smoke clears, the soldier's severed hands remain clinging to the wire.
Yeah. We think "severed hand" deserves a PG-13 even if it is shot in grainy black-and-white.