The New Shoe Blues
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.
Dead Men Need No Boots
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.