All Quiet on the Western Front's an American war movie, so you've already guessed the kind of butt-kicking action hero Paul Bäumer is, right? A muscular tank of a man, Paul's willing to charge onto any battlefield and stand up for what's right. He always has a pithy one-liner handy to drop on his foe as he punches the guy's lights out. And then, throwing his mighty Vibranium shield…wait. Did we confuse Paul with Captain America again?
Ugh, we're always doing that.
In reality, Paul Bäumer couldn't be more different from Captain America. All Quiet is an American war movie, but it's not an action movie. It wants to show us the truth of war; its brutalities and the damage it does to the men touched by it. And concepts like hero, villain, and plot armor don't really jibe with this kind of message.
While Paul's a soldier, he isn't a war hero in the Captain America vein—not the least of which because he's German. He's just an average person, like you or us. In fact, Paul's war has no heroes at all, just scared men forced to live through a cruel ordeal.
With that said, Paul's story begins a lot like that of a classic hero. The film opens with him as a young and naïve man who wants to find his place in the world. Unsure of how to do that, he leaves his hometown and seeks adventure in the world.
We see this when we're first introduced to Paul. In the classroom, Kantorek's lecture about enlisting excites Paul by alluding to classic epics—think more "Odysseus" than "Captain America." He asks, "[…] is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy?" and tells his students:
"Here is a glorious beginning for your lives. The field of honor calls you."
He even speaks directly about Paul when he talks about,
"[…] one young man who has great promise as a writer [and] is dreaming, I suppose, of following in the footsteps of Goethe and Schiller, and I hope he will."
From this, we learn that Paul isn't just an awesome writer, but that he's also familiar with the classics—in fact, the first line of The Odyssey is scrawled on the blackboard to provide further evidence. Although we don't get an inside view of Paul's thoughts, it's not hard to imagine that Paul sees the war as his route to the glory of heroism—he's the first in the classroom to jump up and say, "I'll go."
He thinks that, through the war, he'll find adventure and his place in the world. A hero, he'll be a stronger and better man than when he left.
All Quiet's only borrowing the traditional heroic origin story to lull the audience into a sense of familiarity before pulling the narrative rug out from under them. Paul soon learns that his tale will not be a heroic war story.
The conditions on the Western Front are miserable. The soldiers live in dirty dugouts and stave off starvation with a few stale crusts of rat-gnawed bread. Paul suffers from the mental stress of the enemy's nonstop bombardments—though he maintains better than Kemmerick, who madly runs out of the dugout and is severely injured by shrapnel.
During Paul's first major offensive, he doesn't find the "adulation of heroes," nor do his heroic deeds distinguish him upon the battlefield. Instead, the camera pulls back to focus on the masses of soldiers running, fighting, shooting, and, above all, dying in the trenches. Paul simply blends in with the swarm.
Outside of battle, Paul's world remains saturated in death. Paul and his friends visit Kemmerick in the hospital, and it's clear to them that their childhood chum isn't long for this world. Paul offers up a prayer:
PAUL: Oh, God, this is Franz Kemmerick, only nineteen years old. He doesn't want to die. Please, don't let him die.
But Kemmerick dies painfully anyway.
That evening, Paul confesses to Mueller:
PAUL: 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. Things like that. You know, girls.
The speech signals the change in Paul. He's no longer concerned with the duty, glory, and honor that Kantorek inspired in him through his lectures. Paul doesn't care about being an "iron man of Germany" and understands that saying sacrifices are necessary and being a sacrificed are worlds apart.
Instead, all Paul Bäumer wants to do now is live.
The next offensive brings another evolution to Paul's character. During the counter-attack, an injured Paul is forced to seek cover in a crater. He pretends to be dead, but when a French soldier jumps in with him, Paul reacts instantly and stabs the dude. Unfortunately for Paul, the crossfire pins him down, and he's forced to spend the night and the next day with his slowly dying victim.
If you think back to the previous offensive, you'll remember the enemy soldiers were a nameless horde attacking the German lines. They had all the individuality of orcs or Star Wars Stormtroopers (and, thanks to German machine-gun fire, the same life expectancy). So this situation marks the first time Paul has spent any time with his enemy.
Seeing the man's agony, Paul tries to help him by bringing him the only water available—sludge from the muddy, bloodied pool at the crater's bottom. Despite Paul's care, the soldier dies. Guilt-ridden, Paul empathizes with his enemy, recognizing their suffering as equal:
PAUL: Only, you're better off than I am. You're through. They can't do any more to you now. Oh, God, why did they do this to us? We only wanted to live, you and I. Why should they send us out to fight each other? If we threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert.
The French soldier isn't some carbon-copy minion of a villainous dark lord. He's a man, the same as Paul, who simply wants to survive and see his family again.
This is another subversion of the superhero version of war. From Kantorek's point of view, Paul's performed a gallant deed—he's killed the enemy and defended the fatherland. But we see that Paul isn't a hero. He's simply the faster of two men who found themselves in a kill-or-be-killed dilemma, and we should be no happier that Paul lived and the French soldier died than if the reverse were true.
Both outcomes are tragic.
When Paul returns to the 2nd Company, Kat tries to comfort his friend, saying, "You couldn't do anything about it. We have to kill. We can't help it." And Paul comes to agree with his friend:
PAUL: After all, war is war.
By this point, it's obvious that war doesn't make heroes. So the question we need to ask ourselves now is this: what does Paul's story say happens to young men at war? What's the outcome…if boys aren't being molded into manly patriots?
The answer comes when Paul visits his old classroom. There he finds Kantorek still spewing his propaganda or, as he calls them, lessons:
KANTOREK: From the farms they have gone, from the schools, from the factories. They have gone bravely, nobly, ever forward, realizing that there is no other duty now but to save the fatherland.
Face to face with the ideals that encouraged him to enlist, Paul decides to tell Kantorek's students the truth as he's experienced it:
PAUL: It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all! [...]
And our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are clay, and we sleep and eat with death. We're done for because you can't live that way and keep anything inside you!
The imagery on display is just death, death, death. Bodies becoming earth is an image of the grave, and clay's associated with pottery, figurines, and other empty, inanimate objects. And the imagery of sleeping and eating with death—well—that's pretty straightforwardly morbid.
Paul's message to the young students is that war didn't allow him to find adventure. Nor did he experience the world. He didn't grow stronger or wiser as a person. Instead, it killed him spiritually and left him empty inside.
Instead of a boy becoming a man, he was a boy that became a ghost.
And what does Paul receive for his efforts? The students boo him and call him a coward. Guess they prefer the mythology.
Unable to find peace at home, Paul returns to the Western Front. As he tells Kat, it's the only home he has left:
PAUL: Oh, I'm no good for back there anymore, Kat. None of us are. We've been in this too long. […] It's not home back there anymore. All I could think of was, "I'd like to get back and see Kat again." You're all I've got left, Kat.
This is the film's final knife twist in the heroic narrative. In your standard happy ending tale of heroism story, the hero returns home, bringing with him peace and the promise of future prosperity. (Just think of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or even Saving Private Ryan.)
But Paul can only bring home the truth of his war experience, something the people of Paul's hometown just can't comprehend. An outsider in his hometown, Paul returns to the only home he has left: Kat and the Western Front.
But the film isn't done with him yet. Soon after reuniting, Kat's killed by a bomb, and Paul finds himself alone, despairing, and disillusioned with life. Returning to the Front, Paul, our heroic non-hero, is killed by a French sniper a few weeks before the end of the war. After taking everything from him—his home, his friends, and his dreams—the war takes his life.
And that's where his story ends. Depressing? Yup. But so is war.
Paul and his classmates are teenagers, but they aren't your typical cinematic chums. They don't discover a budding friendship during Saturday detention or spend a wild and crazy night looking for a party to prove how cool they are before graduating.
They don't even break out into a song-and-dance number. Not one.
So who are they? Let's allow Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, to explain these characters through Paul's eyes:
We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost. (6.105)
Remarque's summation of these characters is fitting for considering them in Milestone's film adaptation, too. As Remarque suggests, they exist in a paradoxical state: simultaneously children and old men.
As forlorn children, they have no direction in life beyond where their commanders point them; their dreams snatched away well before they had time to act upon them. But they're old men as well—they've experience too many of the world's darker qualities too quickly.
What's to become of this lost generation? Spoiler alert: it ain't a happy ending.
Oh, and just as a heads-up: we're lumping all of these characters into one analysis because they all have the same character arc. They begin the story has enthusiastic youths, evolve into soldiers who learn to live with death on a daily basis, and suffer greatly from the war.
They may approach the transition differently—for example, Kemmerick suffers a psychological breakdown while Leer becomes more cynical—but every one of 'em makes the transition from innocent youth to hardened soldier.
When we first meet Paul's classmates, they're eager young men, and we see Kantorek's lecture playing toward their patriotism and inexperience. Kemmerick imagines his mother's distress at him joining the service but also his father's booming pride. Leer sees himself being celebrated in a parade with his arms draped around two women. Behm decides to join through straight-up peer pressure.
Is there anything that shouts "high school" more than wanting parents' acceptance, seeking the attention of hot girls, and bending to peer pressure? Probably not—unless it's "drinking Monster in order to stay awake during geometry class."
As the boys begin boot camp, we see further evidence of their childishness:
PETER: I'm gonna get in the cavalry and ride.
MUELLER: No cavalry for me. Infantry's where you see the fighting.
PETER: Where are all the guns? That's what I want to know.
PAUL: Oh, you don't get a gun for a long while yet.
PETER: Well, if I'm gonna bump off the enemy, I gotta have some practice.
War's a game to them. They imagine winning rank and status through it, racking up enemy soldiers lives the same way you'd rack up points in an FPS. The possibility of their own deaths is never entertained—it's almost as if it couldn't possibly happen.
They also don't understand that the goal of boot camp is to change them, to transform them from boys to soldiers. They see it as "practice" for the main event.
They are, of course, dead wrong. (Emphasis on the "dead" part.)
As the war goes on, Paul's classmates emotionally calcify as their dreams are lost and they grow accustomed to the mud, blood, and death.
We see their jadedness start after they visit Kemmerick's in the hospital. Seeing their friend injured and in pain, they reassure him that he should regain his strength to return home. But as soon as they're out of earshot, we hear the following exchange:
PETER: You think he'll last till after mess?
ALBERT: You don't think—
LEER: Done for.
Kemmerick's their friend, and they don't want him to die, but they've seen too much death and carnage to be as distraught as when Behm bites the bullet. They aren't being cruel by pointing out that Kemmerick won't make it. They're simply stating a fact.
Later, we see the same cavalier attitude toward their own deaths:
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.
This isn't to say that any of them wants to die—Paul screams bloody murder when he thinks he's going to the "dying room" in the Catholic hospital. It's just that, like old men, they've accepted death as an eventuality…and an eventuality that's going to come around sooner rather than later.
Yet we occasionally see glimpses of how young these guys still are. A great example is when Albert and Paul ogle the poster of a pretty performer:
ALBERT: How old do you think she is?
PAUL: Oh, about twenty-two.
ALBERT: No, you know, that'd make her older than us. She's seventeen.
PAUL: A girl like that. That'd be good, eh, Albert?
ALBERT: We wouldn't have much of a chance with him around.
Despite living with death, they still have the desires and drives of an average nineteen-year-old—sex, sex, and more sex (with a side of sex).
So how does this young-boy-but-old-man paradox correct itself? Do Paul's classmates eventual salvage their lost youths? Do they accept becoming bitter old men before their time?
Well, truth is…it doesn't correct itself. All of Paul's classmates either die or are disabled in the war, and they exit Paul's story long before resolutions can come to their individual tales.
Here's the rundown:
Yeah. It's gloomy as November in Central Europe.
But this is, after all, an anti-war movie. With Paul's classmates, the film's showing us that war can achieve neither glory nor resolution. It can only destroy.
And, as the film's opening text tells us, the stories of Paul's classmates "tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war." And this is certainly true of Paul and his classmates. Each one is destroyed, emotionally and physically, because of their participation in the war.
Katczinsky, a.k.a. Kat, is the Mickey to Paul's Rocky, the Obi-Wan to his Luke Skywalker, the Nick Fury to his Iron Man. (Okay, maybe not that last one; Kat's not too big on inspirational speeches.)
Like the famous teachers above, Kat falls into the guide/mentor role. He adopts this persona on Paul's first day at 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.
You'd think someone might have gone over all this before shipping the new recruits off to war. But Kat's the one who has to teach Paul and his classmates how to survive the war—or, at least, he provides them the skills to increase their chances of survival.
Kat's unique among the Obi-Wans and Nick Furys of cinematic mentors in that he doesn't tell a budding hero that they're the one destined to defeat evil or save the world. Nope. His lessons are grimmer…but ultimately more useful for a soldier on the lines.
Let's consider Kantorek's lesson to the boys at the film's beginning:
KANTOREK: You are the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy when you are called upon to do so.
This is a lesson straight from the fairy tales. It holds up the mythology of bravery and great victories, where heroic deaths are immortalized in song.
Now let's compare that to Kat teaching Kemmerick the nuts and bolts of how war works. After Behm's killed, Kemmerick runs into enemy fire to retrieve his friend's body. Pretty brave, right? Sounds like something that would make a good story on the nightly news.
But this is what Kat has to say about it:
KEMMERICK: He's dead. He's dead.
KAT: Why did you risk your life bringing him in?
KEMMERICK: But it's Behn. My friend.
KAT: It's a corpse, no matter who it is. Now, don't any of you ever do that again. Put him over there.
That may have harshed Kemmerick's mellow (although we doubt that retrieving the corpse of your best friend is exactly mellow-making), but Kat's right. Behm was already dead. It's not like the enemy could make Behm more dead. All Kemmerick did was risk his own life.
Kat's lessons may lack the luster of Kantorek's rhetoric, but they have one thing going for them: they're 100% true.
Kat's lessons prove so important—and his friendship so vital—that Paul can't imagine what he'd do without his mentor. As he says during their last conversation:
PAUL: It's not home back there anymore. All I could think of was, "I'd like to get back and see Kat again." You're all I've got left, Kat.
KAT: I'm not much to have left. I missed you, Paul.
PAUL: At least we know what it's all about out here. There're no lies here.
The other teacher-figures in Paul's life have taught him lies…or nothing at all. Kantorek taught him that he'd find glory and heroism in the war. Paul's father spoke to him only of honor and victory. And Himmelstoss was only good for learning to crawl through mud. (In his defense, there is a lot of mud on the Western Front.)
But they prove to be spreading lies about the war to anyone who will listen. Kat was always honest and forthright with Paul, and although his lessons may have been bleak, they kept Paul alive and provided him with hope and place to belong.
When Kat's ultimately killed, Paul finds he's lost without his mentor. Losing his hope and sense of place, Paul essentially gives up.
Every group's got one—that snarky, sarcastic wit who can always make a joke no matter how dour the circumstances are. And for the 2nd Company, it's Tjaden.
Whether to keep up morale or just his own sanity, Tjaden can find humor anyplace, anytime, anywhere. When the 2nd Company goes off to string barbed wire across the Front, Tjaden reminds the driver:
TJADEN: And be on time. I don't want to miss my breakfast.
After Paul and Albert trick Tjaden and spend the night with the French women, Tjaden jokingly tells them the next morning,
TJADEN: Mind you, I'm not speaking to you, you traitors.
But Tjaden can't make with the yuks all the time. After a week of constant bombardment and bitter hunger, even Tjaden is ready to snap, cursing the company cook for lacking guts and being "so far behind the lines he can't hear the shooting."
Tjaden isn't just comic relief, though. His comedy has a purpose other than just being funny. His humor follows in the footsteps of a character archetype called the wise fool. This character seems like a dunce, but beneath his badoom-ching wit he's got a handle on the situation that few others can match.
Shakespeare made good use of this character in his plays, so you know it's legit. Feste in Twelfth Night, or What You Will is an example of the Bard using this archetype in a comedy, and the ironically named Fool of King Lear fame shows you the character being put to use in tragedy.
And Tjaden doesn't disappoint his foolish Shakespearean comrades. Here's an example of him acting silly but making a solid point:
TJADEN: Well, how do they start a war?
ALBERT: Well, one country offends another.
TJADEN: How could one country offend another? You mean there's a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?
ALBERT: Well, stupid, one people offends another.
TJADEN: Oh, if that's it I shouldn't be here at all. I don't feel offended.
Everyone laughs at Tjaden messing around, but it's clear his engagement with the discussion is on a level above Albert's. His point is that things like "nation" and "nationality" are abstract concepts. A nation is just a plot of land with no personal stake in its own existence.
And it's not like being American, German, or some other nationality is part of one's genetic makeup. Not all people of a nation need to act the same way, or be offended by the same things.
As luck would have it, Tjaden's fate follows a different path from the rest of his 2nd Company comrades. He survives.
Even though we don't see it in All Quiet, Tjaden is the only member of the main cast that survives the war. The character returns in the film's 1937 sequel, The Road Back. That movie tells the tale of four men, Tjaden among them, returning from the war and attempting to reenter society despite their disillusionment.
But that—to quote The Neverending Story—is another story for another time.
Kantorek is the worst teacher ever. And yes, we're counting Dolores Umbridge.
Like so many cinematic (and real life) teachers, Kantorek's a huge inspiration. But rather than teach the kids math or social studies, he lectures his class about the glory and adventure to be found in going to war.
Kantorek personifies chauvinism and fervent nationalism in the film. It's his one character trait; if chauvinism grew a weepy mustache and slapped on an ascot, it would look exactly like this guy. And his propagandist teachings are instrumental in getting Paul and his classmates to enlist.
Kantorek opens his lecture by teaching the boys that the thing of utmost importance is the nation. He says they are "the life of the fatherland," suggesting they are a means for creating the nation rather than "ends in themselves." He also believes that the state holds more importance than family:
KANTOREK: Are your fathers so forgetful of their fatherland that they would let it perish rather than you? Are your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth?
For him, the question is rhetorical. Nothing trumps the fatherland for Kantorek…not even real dads.
Kantorek's chauvinism comes through when his speech switches gears to military glory. He notes that being "foremost in battle is a virtue not to be despised." He even thinks that dying for such a glorious cause isn't such a bum deal:
KANTOREK: 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.
We don't know about you guys but we can think of sweeter things to do with our time. Like eating ice cream or, you know, not dying.
But Paul and his classmates are completely entranced. They see Kantorek as an authority figure and believe that he understands the world better than they do, so they trust him to help them find a proper path for their lives. Roused by the speech, they all enlist.
But as the film goes on, you can look back on Kantorek's speech and see that he might not know what he's talking about. In fact, he's super ignorant, which really isn't the best quality to have in a teacher.
His speech overflows with words like "glory," "honor," "leadership," and "fatherland," but these words have no relation to the actual horrors Paul and his fellow soldiers face. We can think of a few terms that would have been more apt: maybe "death," "starvation," "lice," "terror," and "psychological trauma"?
But years later, we find that this old teacher has changed his tune, of course. After years of hearing stories from the Western Front, watching supplies diminish to support the war effort, and seeing the disillusionment in soldiers' eyes, Kantorek comes to his senses and learns the error of his ways.
Ha. Ha, ha. We're kidding. He remains as pigheadedly naïve as ever.
When Paul revisits the classroom, he finds that Kantorek's still sporting that sad mustache and still teaching the same old schtick:
KANTOREK: From the farms they have gone, from the schools, from the factories. They have gone bravely, nobly, ever forward, realizing that there is no other duty now but to save the fatherland.
Paul's grown up though. While he was once the student, now he's the more mature and wise of the two, and he attempts to teach his old teacher and the young men the truth of the war:
PAUL: He tells you, "Go out and die." Oh, but if you'll pardon me, it's easier to say, "Go out and die" than it is to do it.
Unfortunately, Kantorek's lessons have already sunk into this new class of eager, would-be soldiers, and Paul's called a coward for his efforts at telling the truth.
In the end, Kantorek shows us the true danger of chauvinism and militant nationalism—it's not just that these worldviews are mistaken; it's that the people who espouse them usually never learn how truly wrong they are.
Sergeant Himmelstoss is a perfectly nice guy on his own—he's your typical jolly postman. But slap a uniform on him and tell him he has free rein over a group of people and watch him transform into a grade-A jerk.
Himmelstoss represents the military complex during World War I. His job is to take young men, strip them of their individuality, and make them uniform (and uniformed) soldiers.
In his own words,
"You're going to be soldiers, and that's all!"
This would be bad enough (shades of Full Metal Jacket's Sgt. Hartman), but unfortunately he isn't very good at his job. His training playbook consists of performing marching drills and mud crawls.
If the squad doesn't sing loud enough for his liking, he makes them crawl through the mud until they sing like baritone birds. When the commanding officer orders the men to take leave, Himmelstoss makes them crawl through the mud again, wrecking their leave just because he has the power to.
Now, obviously the film had to cut some of his training for pacing's sake, but it remains evident that Himmelstoss does not properly prepare Paul and his friends for war. For example, Kat has to teach the young soldiers the basics on their first night stringing barbed wire.
The reason for this disregard is that Himmelstoss isn't interested in the young men under his tutelage. He obsesses over rank and status, and his teaching has more to do with ensuring his orders get followed than with instructing young soldiers on how to survive.
Given this, Himmelstoss represents a dark view of the era's military establishments—All Quiet on the Western Front sees them not as designed to defend their countries, but as institutions that use young men to obtain power and status.
Eventually Himmelstoss is sent to the Front to fight alongside the 2nd Company, and we see his obsession with status again. Only at the Front, it's your ability to fight and survive that earns respect, not your rank.
And Himmelstoss doesn't like this one bit.
PAUL: It isn't customary to ask for salutes here. But I'll tell you what we'll do. We're going to attack a town that we tried to take once before. Many killed and many wounded. It was great fun. This time you're going with us. If any of us stops a bullet, before we die, we're going to come to you, click our heels together and ask stiffly, "Please, Sergeant Himmelstoss, may we go?"
HIMMELSTOSS: You'll…You'll pay for this, you… [He leaves.]
The attack begins soon afterward, and we see an interesting wrinkle in Himmelstoss's character. At first, he hides in a crater and refuses to advance. Paul hits him and berates him for being a coward, but Himmelstoss still refuses to move. Then a commanding officer sees the two:
COMMANDER: Forward! Forward! Get out here!
HIMMELSTOSS: The command was forward. Command was forward! Forward! Forward!
At the command, Himmelstoss leaps from the crater and bravely charges the enemy line as Paul looks on in surprise and, perhaps, with a hint of admiration.
This shows us that Himmelstoss's obsession with status and rank works both ways. While he demands that those of a lower rank respect and obey his orders, he respects those ranked above him, obeys their commands, and seeks desperately to please them. For him, status is currency and rank is how you earn it.
Not that it works out for him at the Front. He's hit soon after taking up the charge.
The French Soldier has a totally thankless role in All Quiet on the Western Front. He takes cover in the same crater as Paul, and Paul promptly stabs him. (It's war, y'all.)
The soldier then spends the rest of the day and night slowly dying in excruciating pain, his only company being the man who got stabby with him in the first place. The next day he dies, not having spoken a single word.
As far as cinematic deaths go, it could be worse…but not by much.
But despite playing a small part, the French soldier proves important to the film—he becomes Paul's foil (or character that provides a contrast for another character; see "Character Roles" for details).
We know almost nothing about him except that his name is Gerard Duval and he has a wife and child back home. And we only know this much because of Paul's brief glimpse at his paperwork. (Yup, Paul stabs him and then goes through his wallet.)
In contrast, we know volumes about Paul: his family, his history, his friends, his hopes, and his despair. But we see that each man's suffering is equal, and that the sanctity of their lives is equal: Gerard was the one who kicked the bucket, but it could have just as easily been ol' Paul.
And this makes Paul ruminate on the absurdity and randomness of war:
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. […] We only wanted to live, you and I. Why should they send us out to fight each other? If we threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert.
It isn't difficult to infer from this quote that both men have the same nature—and fate—despite fighting on different sides of No Man's Land. Both want to live, both want to return to their families, and both are willing to kill the enemy to see it happen. It just happens that Paul was quicker on the draw than Duval.
Westhus and Detering are old war dogs by the time Paul and his friends reach the 2nd Company. When we first meet them, they have little concern about Paul and his friends, likely believing the noobs won't last long. But as time goes on, both men learn to accept the young replacements as members of 2nd Company.
As older men, they provide a contrast for the younger soldiers of the 2nd Company. Whereas the youngsters have put their future plans and dreams on hold, both Westhus and Detering had established lives, jobs, and families before taking up arms to fight for the fatherland. While all of the 2nd Company suffers for the war effort, Detering's and Westhus's suffering is more a desire to return to the everyday, rather than acclimating to the life of a soldier.
For example, when the soldiers wonder what they'll do during peacetime, the young dudes have young dude considerations: they want to get drunk, and wonder whether it's worth returning to finish school. But Westhus wants to return to his job in the peat fields.
Detering is especially prone to homesickness and nostalgia, as evident in the following exchange:
WESTHUS: We passed a cherry tree and when he saw it, he sort of went crazy. I could hardly drag him away.
DETERING: It was beautiful. I have a big orchard with cherry trees at home. And when they're in full blossom, from the hayloft it looks like one single sheet. So white.
ALBERT: Perhaps you can get leave soon.
LEER: You may even be sent back as a farmer.
DETERING: A woman can't run a farm alone. That's no good, you know? No matter how hard she works. Harvest coming on again.
Detering's homesickness manifests as a type of mental breakdown, worrying about his wife, farm, and the life he left behind. This makes him unique—the other soldiers don't have to worry about the warfront and the homefront simultaneously.
Yet despite their differences, both Westhus and Detering share similar fates to their young comrades. When Paul returns to the Front after his furlough, Tjaden updates him on the casualties of the 2nd Company. Westhus went out to save a wounded messenger dog (aww!) and was killed.
And Detering? Well, let's just let Tjaden fill you in:
"I guess he never got over [the cherry blossoms]. He started out one night to go home and help his wife with the farm. They got him behind the lines and we never heard of him since. He was just homesick but probably they couldn't see it that way."
The implication is that the top brass saw it as desertion, an offense potentially punishable by death.
Paul's family couldn't seem more homey if they came to us straight out of Berenstain Bear country (although that would make for a very different movie—The Berenstain Bears In No Man's Land, anyone?).
We have the protective mother, the proud father, and the sweet lil' sis, Anna. Each supports Paul, and they try their best. They really do. But like Kantorek, Himmelstoss, and the other townsfolk, their ignorance of the true horrors of the Western Front leaves them unable to understand Paul's suffering…or how the war has disillusioned him.
Let's start with Paul's father. He's one proud papa and sees his son as one of Germany's heroes—"an iron youth of the fatherland," to borrow Kantorek's words.
This is made evident by his introduction of Paul to his friends:
"We're behind the lines, but we know how to honor the soldier who goes on in spite of blood and death. Gentlemen, my son."
Under typical circumstances it'd be great that Paul's father is so proud of his son. Unfortunately, Paul's father's pride comes from ignorance.
When Paul tries to tell the gentlemen that "the war isn't the way it looks back here," Paul's father doesn't follow up on that. He's too busy recommending that the German forces break through Flanders and on to Paris. Paul's father sees his son as a hero and the war effort as a glorious adventure—he can't see any other reality, even when it's right in front of him.
Unable to grasp the truth of Paul's experiences—likely because he hasn't bothered to ask or listen—his pride in his son really should instead be mounting concern for his wellbeing.
Paul's mother has a similar problem, but in reverse. Instead of seeing her son as a glorious soldier, she still sees him as a boy. This is evident by her concerns. Rather than worry about him being shot, she worries that he isn't eating enough or that he should be "on [his] guard against the women out there."
Yeah, mom. The real problem out in the trenches is that there are too many pretty girls. What if precious little Paul ends up dating a floozy?
Now, to be fair to Mrs. Bäumer, it's possible that she understands the true dangers her son faces but is simply unable to talk about them. She tells Paul,
"I'll pray for you every day. And if you could get a job that's not quite so dangerous…"
The way she trails off could suggest that she's well aware of the dangers but can't bring herself to give them voice because they scare her. So she reverts to her motherly concerns from Paul's youth, the ones she has a handle on after years of practice. (Stay away from girls who wear skirts that show off the calf, Paul.)
Ultimately, Paul's family's inability to comprehend Paul's emotional state leads him back to the people who do—his comrades on the front lines.
Hammacher is a fellow patient with Paul and Albert in the field hospital. He took a bonk to the noggin' one day and has been a little, well, off ever since.
We'll give the mic over to Hamm himself:
"I'm Hammacher. Yes, that's my name. I got a crack in the head and they gave me a certificate stating that Joseph Hammacher is periodically not responsible for his actions. And ever since then, Hammacher has been having a grand time."
His wording makes it unclear whether Hammacher has lost his marbles…or if he's self-aware and simply enjoying the freedom of his diagnosis.
He says that his past acquaintances "die[d] off so quickly," so his goal is to keep some friends around. This leads him to be a good—if bumbling—friend to Paul and Albert. While he scares them with talk of the "dying room," his tall tales seem to come from a good place: he's letting the noobs in how things go down in the hospital.
Hammacher also tries to cheer Albert up after he returns from the operating room:
HAMMACHER: Hello. Welcome home, Albert. How do you feel, kid?
ALBERT: All right. But I've got such an awful pain. My foot…Hammacher. Did they cut my leg off?
HAMMACHER: Of course not! How many did you have? Two? How many did you have? Two? You've still got 'em. One. Two.
ALBERT: Don't play the fool, Hammacher. Tell me truthfully.
HAMMACHER: Of course not. And you look fine. Look. See?
ALBERT: I won't be a cripple.
HAMMACHER: Now, now.
ALBERT: I won't live like that!
Again, we see that Hammacher's attempts are weaksauce—you don't lead with the "third leg" joke, guy—but they come from a good place, trying to talk the distraught Albert down from the metaphorical ledge.