HERR MEYER: Mr. Postman. War is war and schnapps is schnapps, but business must go on. You didn't leave the mail yet this morning.
HIMMELSCHLOSS: I'm sorry, Mr. Meyer.
At the story's beginning, everyone's super excited about the war, treating it like it's a sporting event—like Germany v. France at the World War Cup. Herr Meyer is even a bit testy that something like war should interfere with day-to-day business. Of course, this view will change as word of the war's horrors reaches the populace…right? Right?
KANTOREK: I believe it will be a quick war, that there will be few losses. 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."
Kantorek's speech gives us a sense of the nation's mentality regarding the war. It'll be a rip-roaring adventure across the French country, and while the deaths will be tragic, what adventure wouldn't be complete without a little tragedy? If the Latin is to be believed, it's not even a tragedy since there could be no fitter cause for a young man's life. And who can argue with Latin?
KAT: It's all right, boy. Get up. Here. Never mind. It's happened to better men than you, and it's happened to me. When we come back, I'll get you all some nice clean underwear. That kind of shell you don't have to pay much attention to.
Remember Kantorek's speech about the grand adventure of war? Did we miss the part where he discusses a man soiling his underwear for fear of death? Unlike Kantorek, Kat provides the truth about war. It sure isn't glorious to wet your pants…but it is reality.
TJADEN: Don't be so snooty. You may wish you had this back. About two more days of this and this rat-bitten end of a piece of bread's gonna taste just like a hunk of fruitcake.
PAUL: It wouldn't—It wouldn't last two more days, would it?
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.
As the horrors of war begin to reveal themselves, you can see the young recruits become disillusioned. Far from having adventures in foreign lands, the young men are huddling in a dugout, eating rat-gnawed bread, and helplessly wondering if that blast they hear in the distance will be the shell to finally kill them. After five days of this, we imagine they might have a few arguments for Kantorek—if only they could learn the Latin for "Take this job and shove it!"
[A soldier screams.]
[Bomb explodes. Bunker fills with dirt.]
KEMMERICK: Let me out!
[Kat punches him.]
PAUL: What did you do that for?
KAT: Shut up! Grab him.
KAT: Now hold him.
Kemmerick begins to suffer from "combat neurosis," what they called "shell shock" during WWI. Today we know it is a personality disturbance that represents a response to the stress of war. But back then, they weren't sure what caused it.
[The Allied forces attack the German lines but are mowed down by machine-gun fire. When they reach the German's lines, they swarm into the trench en masse and a fierce hand-to-hand combat ensues. Soldiers kill each other with bayonets, knives, and spades.]
What can we even add? This battle scene puts the monstrosities of war on full. One thing we will point out is that individual characters are seldom singled out during the fight. They become part of an instinctive mass, each fighting and killing and running to stay alive in the chaos.
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.
Tjaden may be making a joke, but, like all good comedians, he has a point behind the humor. War requires people to sacrifice themselves for abstract concepts like "the people" or "the state." But Germany and the Germanic people don't exist outside the world of the mind. Don't believe us? Just go back a couple centuries and asks the Goths what they think about Germany. Best bring a battle-axe with you.
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. You'll have to forgive me, comrade. I'll do all I can. I'll write to your parents. I'll write to…
The French soldier's death is a very personal one for Paul—he must stay behind and witness the full pain and suffering his actions have brought. Here, the tragedy of an individual's suffering is on full display, countering Kantorek's statement from earlier that "few losses" would be acceptable. Clearly a few loses are a few too many if such suffering can be avoided.
KAT: Well, kid, now we're gonna be separated.
PAUL: Maybe we can do something together later on when the war is over.
KAT: Yes, kid.
PAUL: You give me your address; I'll give you mine.
PAUL: You can't get both of us in one day! We'll surely see each other again, Kat. Remember that day when you brought the whole pig into the factory? And that day in the woods when you taught us how to dodge shells? And my first bombardment? How I cried. I was a young recruit then.
Of course, Kat does die, and we see that the great misfortune of Paul's time in the war isn't that he dies. Rather, it's that the war takes everything from him. The war steals Paul's dreams, his innocence, and his home. Lastly, it takes Kat away from him, Paul's one hope for having a life and connections beyond the war.
KANTOREK: You are the life of the fatherland, you boys. You are the iron men of Germany. You are the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy when you are called upon to do so.
Chauvinism impresses the idea that country is the only thing that matters. The individual students don't matter to Kantorek because all he can see in them is the "life of the fatherland."
MUELLER: I think maybe the Kaiser wanted a war.
TJADEN: You leave us out of this.
KAT: I don't see that. The Kaiser's got everything he needs.
PETER: Well, he never had a war before. Every full-grown emperor needs one war to make him famous. Why, that's history.
PAUL: Yeah, generals, too. They need war.
MUELLER: And manufacturers. They get rich.
ALBERT: I think it's more a kind of fever. Nobody wants it in particular and then, all at once, here it is. We didn't want it. The English didn't want it. And here we are fighting.
The characters are considering possible origins for the war, and in doing so, potential origins for the chauvinism consuming their country. The first is that the chauvinism was manufactured so various people and organizations could profit. The second is that chauvinism is a type of thought virus, spread from one person to another like the flu.
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?"
The treatment of Himmelstoss shows us how much Paul and his friends have changed since the film's opening. In Kantorek's class, they were all about the grand adventure and dying for the fatherland. But if we see Himmelstoss as representing militarism and nationalism, then Paul's disregard for his authority demonstrates that his chauvinistic ideals are gone.
GENTLEMAN 1: I'm glad to know you, young man, I'm glad to know you. And how are things out there? Terrible, eh? Terrible. But we must carry on. After all, you do at least get decent food out there. Naturally, it's worse here. Naturally. But the best for our soldiers all the time. That's our motto: the best for our soldiers.
ALL: The best for our soldiers.
GENTLEMAN 1: But you must give the Frenchies a good licking! And if you boys want to come home, let me show you what you must do before you can come home. Give us a hand there, men.
Paul and his fellow soldiers may have lost their chauvinist zeal, but that's not true of the people of his hometown. Without experience the atrocities of the Front firsthand, Paul's father and his entourage remain ignorant of the realities of the war. As such, they still treat it like a giant game. And like all fathers who bust out Risk on family game night, they're totally unaware they are the only ones enjoying the game.
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! How are you, Paul?
PAUL: Glad to see you, Professor.
And he's still at it. One of the hallmarks of chauvinism is that it is based on belief, faith, and emotions, not facts and reason. By this time, Kantorek knows the war was not quick, the losses were not few, and the suffering at the Front has been immense. But because his chauvinism was based on a belief of his own country's superiority, no facts will ever change his mind.
TJADEN: He got homesick. You remember about the cherry blossoms?
TJADEN: I guess he never got over that. 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.
Earlier, we saw Detering's pain at being away from his farm and his wife. He simply wanted to return to them, and anyone who has ever been homesick can empathize with him. But the military officials don't see the individual's plight, only the plight of the nation and the military. As such, they see the act as desertion, and it is strongly implied the punishment will be execution.
KANTOREK: Some of you may have ambitions. I know of one young man who has great promise as a writer. He has written the first act of a tragedy which would be a credit to one of the masters. And he is dreaming, I suppose, of following in the footsteps of Goethe and Schiller, and I hope he will. But now our country calls. The fatherland needs leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country.
The message here is pretty clear: individuality is well and good, but when your country calls, your personal needs must be cast aside. When Paul decides to enlist, he puts a pin in his future plans. The tragedy of Paul's life will "follow in the footsteps of Goethe and Schiller," though we're guessing he would rather have written it than lived it.
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.
Immediately after joining the army, the young men develop new hopes and dreams, all centered on the glory and heroism they perceive will be theirs in the service. The tragedy is these dreams might come true.
HIMMELSTOSS: You're going to be soldiers, and that's all! I'll take the mother's milk out of you. I'll make you hard-boiled. I'll make soldiers out of you or kill you! Now, salute!
Here, we see a variety of young men, each with different skills, ambitions, and desires. Paul wants to be a writer; Kemmerick, we later learn, wants to be a forest ranger. But war has no use for individual skills or wants. It needs soldiers trained to kill other soldiers. So you can be all you want to be, assuming that's what you want to be.
KEMMERICK: Oh, I know what you mean! I know! I know now! They've cut my leg off. Why didn't they tell me? Why didn't they tell me?
PAUL: Franz! Franz!
KEMMERICK: …they tell me. Now I can't walk anymore!
PAUL: Franz, you must be thankful that you've come off with only that.
KEMMERICK: I wanted to be a forester once.
Kemmerick sacrifices his dreams for the war effort. Far from being ecstatic at dying for his country—as Kantorek's speech suggested—we see a young man broken and disillusioned moments before his death.
MUELLER: I've got it, Kat. Listen, "The sum of an arithmetic series is S = A + L XN over 2." Interesting, isn't it?
KAT: What do you want to learn that stuff for? One day you'll stop a bullet and it'll all be wasted.
MUELLER: I get a lot of fun out of it.
Kat points out a great hypocrisy in Kantorek's speech from earlier. Joining the army isn't providing Mueller with experience. Rather, any skills he wishes to foster are wasted if they won't help him stop a bullet for his country. And Kat's prediction proves true. Mueller does stop a bullet for his country later and his knowledge is wasted.
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.
But it's not just about young men sacrificing their dreams. Detering achieved his dream of having a wife and a farm, and he set that dream aside to fight in the war.
PAUL'S MOTHER: Good night, my son.
PAUL: Good night, mother.
PAUL: Oh, mother. Mother. You still think I'm a child. Why can't I put my head in your lap and cry?
Paul's new dream is more like an anti-dream. Rather than imagining what his future could bring, Paul's dream is now to go backward and return to when he was a child. Why? Without a future beyond fighting, he can only wish to return to when he still had dreams and plans and a lap to cry on.
PAUL: Oh, I'm no good for back there anymore, Kat. None of us are. We've been in this too long.
By the story's end, Paul's permanently shelved his dreams. The army wanted to turn him into a solider—"and that's all"—and that's exactly what he has become.
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.
MUELLER: Bayonet drill. That's what I want.
ALBERT: You won a medal that time, Mueller.
MUELLER: You wait. In about a month, I'll be covered with them.
When Paul and his friends first join the army, they treat the upcoming war like boys playing war. Death seems to have no consequences other than being tagged out of the game, and as the heroes of the story, they believe they'll be sporting a shiny coat of plot armor.
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.
But the game gets real when the 2nd Company has wiring duty at the Front. Paul and his friends suffer their first lost, and Kat has to teach them the harsh lesson of the Front: one man's corpse is not worth another man's life. In an adventure tale, Kemmerick's actions might be seen as heroic. In a real war, they're foolhardy.
PAUL: Muller. 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. And it felt as if there were something electric running from the ground up through me.
Death affects the soldiers differently. When Behn died, Kemmerick sank into a deep depression that resulted in psychological trauma. When Paul saw Kemmerick die, he was sad but also thankful that he was still alive.
[Mueller marches to the Front in Kemmerick's boots, but during an assault, he is killed. Peter inherits the boots, but in the next scene, Peter is hit and killed going over the top.]
Kemmerick's boots aren't cursed, but through them, we see the trail of death Paul's friends walk. The movie treats these deaths less ceremoniously than it did Behn's or Kemmerick's. Like the characters, the audience has begun to grow accustomed to seeing death.
PAUL: You'll have to forgive me, comrade. I'll do all I can. I'll write to your parents. I'll write to…
[Checks the soldier's papers.]
PAUL: I'll write to your wife. I'll write to her. I promise she'll not want for anything. And I'll help her and your parents, too. Only, forgive me. Forgive me! Forgive me. Forgive me. [Sobbing.] Forgive me…
Looking at the French soldier's papers, Paul learns his name is Duval and he has a family waiting for him at home. This realization leads Paul into a deep depression as he begs the man's corpse for forgiveness. The French soldier provides a name for the so-far nameless enemy, and Paul learns it is far easier to kill "the enemy" than it is to kill a person.
PAUL: Terrible thing happened yesterday. I stabbed a man. With my own hands, stabbed him.
KAT: I know how it is. Your first time. Never mind. The stretcher-bearers will find him.
PAUL: No, no. He's dead, Kat. I watched him die.
KAT: You couldn't do anything about it. We have to kill. We can't help it. That's what we are here for.
Although Paul's upset over the French soldier's death, he also realizes another truth about the war with Kat's help: you either kill or you're killed. If Paul hadn't stabbed the French soldier, likely it would have been him dying slowly and painfully in a crater in the middle of No Man's Land.
[Paul notices a butterfly just outside his shooter's nest. He reaches for it, and a French sniper notices him. Paul's hand slowly reaches for the butterfly. A shot cracks; Paul's hand jerks. Then it lies limp in the mud as Paul dies.]
In keeping with the reality of war, no one, not even our protagonist, is safe from death. Paul doesn't die after providing a grand, motivational speech or performing some heroic deed. He simply dies.