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.
Those Shells are Shocking
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:
- Paul suffers from depression when he returns home: "Oh, mother. Mother. You still think I'm a child. Why can't I put my head in your lap and cry?"
- Kemmerick has nightmares after witnessing Behn's death: "[Asleep.] Behn. Oh, God. Can't you see it's Behn. He didn't want to come to war. No, no. It isn't Behn. It isn't Behn! It's Kemmerick. It's me!"
- And Paul feels guilty over surviving when his friends haven't: "I saw him die. I didn't know what it was like to die before. And then…then I came outside and it felt…it felt so good to be alive that I started in to walk fast. I began to think of the strangest things, like being out in the fields."
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.