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.
Talkin' Bout My Generation
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.)
Band of Brothers
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:
- Behm's the first to die. He's blinded by shrapnel and panics, running directly into enemy fire.
- Kemmerick dies in the field hospital after his amputation.
- Mueller dies, or is at least seriously injured, during a charge across No Man's Land.
- Peter dies while going over the top.
- Albert's injured and remains in a Catholic hospital. When we see him last, he's sunk into a suicidal depression over his amputated leg.
- We never learn the fate of Leer. He isn't present when Paul returns from furlough, and Tjaden doesn't mention him. We're guessing he was either injured or killed.
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.