Study Guide

All Quiet on the Western Front Setting

Setting

The Western Front

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.

Western Theater

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.

Where? When? What?

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.

Homefront

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.

Right? Nope.

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.

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