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.
Call of Duty: Typical Warfare
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.
Death of a Hero
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.
Death of a Hero Revisited
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.