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.
Teacher, Leave Them Kids Alone
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.
An F for Effort
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.