War; Anti-War; Drama; Coming of Age; Historical Fiction
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.
Coming of Age
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).