Study Guide

All Quiet on the Western Front Summary

All Quiet on the Western Front Summary

Word of warning, Shmoopers. If you want to think of war as awesome and heroic, go watch Star Wars. If you want to see war as a mud-filled hellscape, watch All Quiet on the Western Front.

Don't say we didn't warn you.

The film opens with soldiers marching near a classroom where Paul Bäumer and his friends listen to their lecture. Rather than teach them math or French or other school subjects, their teacher, Kantorek, discusses how glorious the war will be for the fatherland and the soldiers who fight in it.

With visions of Call of Duty dancing in their heads, Paul and his friends enlist.

The young men soon learn that being all you can be means…being a soldier. That's it. The happy-go-lucky postman-turned-sadistic drill sergeant Himmelstoss takes them through basic training, and their lives become an endless series of marching drills and mud crawls.

Paul and his friends are then dispatched to the Western Front, where they join the 2nd Company and meet its leader, Kat (aka Stanislaus Katczinsky), an old war dog with a knack for survival. That night, the company is sent to lay barbed wire. A bombardment strikes, and Behm's blinded by shrapnel. In a panic, he runs into enemy fire and is killed.

The company is sent to the front lines where the enemy bombards them for a week solid. The hunger and constant shelling whittle down their nerves. Unable to stand the stress, Kemmerick dashes from the dugout and is hit in the stomach by shrapnel. When the bombardment stops, Paul and his friends experience the carnage of their first offensive.

After being relieved from the Front, the company receives some R&R. After a soldier's feast of beans and bread, they chill and discuss the causes of the war. They also discuss alternatives to the war, and Kat has an idea that sounds like a prototype for a political Thunderdome.

  

Paul and his friends visit Kemmerick at the field hospital. They try to convince him to regain his strength so he can return home, but secretly they all know he's going to die. Paul stays behind and witnesses Kemmerick's death. It's a downer, to say the least.

One day, Himmelstoss's ordered to the front lines to join the 2nd Company in an offensive. He goes over the top and instantly cowers in a shell hole. Paul berates him for being a coward, but Himmelstoss isn't spurned into action until a superior officer orders him to move. Paul watches a man he's grown to hate bravely charge forward.

Paul's injured and finds cover in a shell hole when the counterattack comes. When a French soldier jumps into the same crater, Paul quickly stabs him. Suppressed by enemy fire, Paul spends the night with the dying Frenchman. Paul tries to save his life, realizing they have no reason to fight other than the war, but the French soldier dies an excruciatingly slow death.

Paul breaks down, crying and begging for the man's forgiveness. (The downers in this film just keep on coming.)

Relieved of duty, Paul, Albert, Leer, and Tjaden enjoy a bath in the river. They spot three French women on the other side and entice them with promises of food. (Yum?) Seeing as there are only three women, Albert, Paul, and Leer convince Kat to get Tjaden totally smashed while they sneak across the river. The three spend the night with the women.

Returning to the front, Paul and Albert are injured by shellfire. They're sent to a Catholic hospital. Paul recovers from his injures, but Albert's leg is amputated. Paul leaves the hospital as his friend slips into a suicidal depression.

Paul is given leave and returns home. His father and his friends take the returning hero for a drink and reveal to him their strategies to win the war and make the final push to Paris. Paul tries to tell them the reality of the situation, but they refuse to listen to him. After all, their strategy involves a map and everything—it's fancy-pants.

Walking the streets, Paul hears Kantorek giving the same bombastic speech to another class of young men. He confesses to them that soldiers don't find glory in war, only death. The students call him a coward.

Angered by everyone's ignorance, Paul returns to the 2nd Company. He finds Kat and confesses he has changed too much to live back home. An enemy airplane drops bombs, and Kat is hit in the shin. Paul carries him to the field hospital but Kat is already dead.

Back at the front lines, a despondent Paul sees a butterfly just outside the trench. He reaches for it and exposes himself to a French sniper. Just as his hand is about to reach the butterfly, a shot rings out. Paul's hand jerks and lies gently in the mud. The final shot shows Paul and his friends marching to the Front for the first time, the image superimposed over a cemetery.

  • Scene 1

    Scene 1

    • A parade of soldiers marches through the streets to the cheers of the townsfolk.
    • Herr Meyer chastises Postman Himmelstoss for being so caught up in the war that he didn't deliver the mail yesterday.
    • Himmelstoss apologizes, noting it'll be his last delivery anyhow as he has been called to the reserves.
    • The parade marches by a classroom.
    • Inside, Kantorek teaches the boys that it's their duty to join the army and protect Germany from its enemies.
    • Hyped by the lecture, several of the boys, including Paul Bäumer, decide to enlist. They parade out of the classroom, chanting, "No more classes!"
  • Scene 2

    Scene 2

    • The boys arrive at boot camp.
    • They goof off while getting dressed, laughing about their ambitions and how great it'll be in the army—apparently forgetting that boot camp and summer camp are two very different things.
    • Himmelstoss enters in uniform, and the boys talk to him all buddy-buddy, but he has none of it.
    • He lines them up and informs them that while they might be stupid he'll make soldiers of them.
    • And that "soldiers" is all they'll ever be.
  • Scene 3

    Scene 3

    • Himmelstoss has the detachment perform drills.
    • First, he has them lie in the mud and advance slowly at his command in a sadistic game of red light, green light.
    • Then he has them march.
    • When he commands them to sing, the detachment sings weakly, so Himmelstoss orders them back to the mud drills.
    • The next time he orders them to sing, they sing loud and proud.
  • Scene 4

    Scene 4

    • Himmelstoss presents the detachment to his commanding officer.
    • The officer praises Himmelstoss's work and says the men will be moving to the Front tomorrow, ordering recommends the detachment be provided leave until midnight.
    • While marching his men back to the barracks, Himmelstoss commands them to crawl through the mud one last time.
    • (There's a lot of mud in this movie.)
  • Scene 5

    Scene 5

    • In the barracks, the soldiers clean their uniforms and complain about Himmelstoss causing them to miss their leave.
    • Everyone wants to give him a smack, but Paul has a plan (which, to everyone's delight, involves smacking him).
    • That night, Himmelstoss walks through the woods while three sheets to the wind.
    • The detachment trips him with rope, covers him with blankets, and spanks him with sabers.
    • They then drop him off in the mud field to crawl his way out.
  • Scene 6

    Scene 6

    • The detachment arrives at the Front.
    • A bombardment greets them, and they all dive for cover.
    • Behn stares in disbelief at a dead soldier, and Paul has to drag him away to get to safety.
  • Scene 7

    Scene 7

    • The young soldiers find the 2nd Company, and Paul instantly irritates a soldier named Westhus by trying to set up in the bunk that he's called dibs on.
    • The young soldiers complain that they're hungry, and Paul asks the veteran soldiers where they can find food.
    • The lanky one, Tjaden, explains that they haven't eaten since yesterday's breakfast but a man named Katczinsky is out searching now.
    • We cut to a soldier crawling through the rain. This is Stanislaus Katczinsky.
    • He finds a train car unloading butchered pigs and manages to trick the men into giving him one.
  • Scene 8

    Scene 8

    • Katczinsky (aka Kat) returns with the pig and is surprised to see the new recruits.
    • Despite Tjaden's protests, Kat agrees to feed the new soldiers if they can pay him for the meal—not with money but with things that have value at the Front such as cigars, cigarettes, and alcohol.
    • The recruits gladly pay.
  • Scene 9

    Scene 9

    • The 2nd Company is order to wiring detail out past the graveyard. The new recruits are terrified at the sounds of the shellfire.
    • Kat teaches them what they'll need to know to survive, such as what shelling sounds to pay attention to and when to hit the dirt—things Himmelstoss should have taught them if he hadn't been too busy making them play in the mud.
    • While stringing the barbed wire, the enemy launches a bombardment.
    • A shell explodes in front of Behn, the shrapnel blinding him.
    • Panicked and in pain, Behn runs blindly out of cover and is shot down.
    • Kemmerick runs out to rescue his friend while Kat and the old hands pull the others back.
    • Kemmerick returns with Behn's body, and Kat asks why he did something so foolish. Kemmerick says Behn was his friend.
    • Kat chastises him, "It's a corpse, no matter who it is."
  • Scene 10

    Scene 10

    • The company returns from the Front, mentally and physically exhausted.
    • When they return, they're given the order to march.
  • Scene 11

    Scene 11

    • The company sits in a dugout as the enemy commences a bombardment.
    • Kat, Paul, and Westhus play cards, but after five days of shelling, no sleep, and rats stealing food, Paul is starting to unravel.
    • Kat calms him down, and Paul even makes a joke. Westhus accepts Paul as one of them.
    • Kemmerick has a dream and sees himself in Behn's place. An officer arrives to inform the men that the bombardment is getting worse, but they'll try to get food to them soon.
    • A shell hits close to the bunker and blows dirt into the entrance.
    • Kemmerick panics and tries to escape.
    • Paul grabs him, and Kat punches him back to his senses.
  • Scene 12

    Scene 12

    • The bombardment continues; the soldiers look more disheveled.
    • A shell hits close and knocks down one of the dugout's support beams. Kemmerick bolts outside and is struck by shrapnel.
    • Paul and an officer get a stretcher for him. When Paul asks if it's bad, the officer lies that he doesn't know. He orders Paul to lie to the others and say he's okay.
  • Scene 13

    Scene 13

    • More bombardments; the soldiers look like the walking dead. Tjaden complains that the company cook is a coward and is far behind the lines in order to avoid the shooting.
    • Kat returns with a crust of bread and splits it between the men.
    • A shell scares rats from their burrows, and the men go crazy on them with their spades. After the rodent melee, they all lie down to rest.
    • The bombardment suddenly stops. A whistle blows. The company grabs their rifles, runs out into the trenches, and prepares for the attack.
  • Scene 14

    Scene 14

    • A dead silence blankets the battlefield, followed by the whistle of bombs.
    • The Allied forces swarm toward the German trenches. They're torn apart by bombs and bullets.
    • The Allied forces push their way into the German trenches. After fierce, close-quarters combat, the Germans retreat and reposition in the trenches further back.
    • The Allied forces advance but are turned back by German bombardment. The German forces begin a counter-offensive.
  • Scene 15

    Scene 15

    • The German soldiers manage to push their way into the Allied trenches, but a commander orders them back to their own lines as they can't hold the position.
    • The company returns to their trenches to rest.
    • Tjaden cuts the bloody heel from a loaf of bread he took and opens a bottle of cognac. The men share the bounty and rest.
    • By the battle's conclusion, no ground has been won or lost on either side.
  • Scene 16

    Scene 16

    • The 2nd Company leaves the Front and goes to the mess line. The cook refuses to serve them until the entire second company arrives, but the men claim they're all present—only 80 of the 150 men aren't dead or in the hospital.
    • It's been a rough week.
    • The cook is upset because he drew rations for 150 men, but Kat argues he cooked food for the 2nd Company, so they should get the whole issue.
    • A fight almost breaks out when the commander appears and orders all the food served to the men.
  • Scene 17

    Scene 17

    • The men hungrily eat their fill. Now totally relaxed, they discuss who's responsible for the war and decide it's no one country's fault, except maybe the manufacturers as they get rich.
    • Oh, and the emperors and generals, as they need war to get their names into the history books. Mission accomplished, Kaiser.
    • Kat jokingly suggests that the kings, their cabinets, and their generals fight their own wars with club, much like a sporting event.
    • Paul and his friends decide to go visit Kemmerick in the field hospital.
  • Scene 18

    Scene 18

    • Paul and the others visit Kemmerick in the field hospital.
    • Kemmerick's leg has been amputated, so Mueller asks if he can have his boots (they're pretty swank).
    • Paul convinces the others to leave. On the way out, they discuss how Kemmerick won't last the night.
    • Mueller apologies to Paul, saying he wouldn't have asked for the boots if Kemmerick had any use for them now.
  • Scene 19

    Scene 19

    • Paul returns to Kemmerick's bedside and tries to convince him he'll get better. Kemmerick doesn't think he will, and he tells Paul to take his boots to Mueller.
    • When Kemmerick goes into convulsions, Paul runs to fetch a doctor, but the doctor has too much work to provide individual care.
    • The scene cuts to the front of the field hospital. Paul descends the stairs holding Kemmerick's boots.
    • He runs while clutching the boots tight. Soldiers jeer at him, yelling he stole the boots.
  • Scene 20

    Scene 20

    • Paul returns to the others and gives Mueller the boots.
    • He confesses to Mueller that he saw Kemmerick die and adds that it felt so good to be alive.
    • Not hearing Paul's confession, Mueller says it'll be a pleasure to go to the Front in such comfy boots.
  • Scene 21

    Scene 21

    • Mueller marches to the Front and looks pretty stoked in his new Air Kemmerick's. During an assault, he's hit with shrapnel.
    • We see the boots marching again, and the camera pans up to reveal Peter as the not-so-proud new owner.
    • We cut to the boots going over the top. A bomb explodes and the boots tumble back into the trench. We see Peter's been killed.
    • This movie is relentless.
  • Scene 22

    Scene 22

    • The soldiers sit in their dugout picking lice from their clothes when Westhus and Detering return from patrol.
    • Seeing blossoming cherry trees, Detering's been overtaken with homesickness.
    • The older soldiers discuss the lives they'll return to when the war is over, but Albert points out that the younger soldiers have nothing to return to other than school.
    • And what can school possibly teach them now? Nothing half as useful as lighting a cigarette in the wind, that's what.
  • Scene 23

    Scene 23

    • Leer notices Himmelstoss and laughs.
    • Having recognized Leer, Himmelstoss enters and demands everyone stand at attention for him. The soldiers laugh.
    • Paul confronts Himmelstoss, telling him they'll all salute him and ask permission to die if they stop a bullet in the next attack. Flustered, Himmelstoss leaves.
    • The soldiers laugh until they hear bombs exploding. They prepare for the upcoming attack.
  • Scene 24

    Scene 24

    • The attack begins. A terrified Himmelstoss hides in a crater, but Paul goes in after him and yells at him to get up.
    • A commander sees the two and orders them forward. The order galvanizes Himmelstoss's courage and the man rises from the crater and advances as Paul watches.
    • Paul continues forward, but when he comes to a church, he's hit with shrapnel.
    • A massive bombardment strikes the graveyard, and Paul hides in one of the blown coffins. Creepy.
    • Kat finds him and wonders about his wounds, but Paul shakes him off.
    • The bombardment stops, and Kat recognizes it as a sign of an incoming counter-attack. During the retreat, Paul takes cover in a crater and watches the French forces surge over him.
    • As the French forces are pushed back, a French soldier falls into Paul's crater, and Paul stabs him with the knife. Caught under crossfire, Paul can't escape the crater.
  • Scene 25

    Scene 25

    • Day passes to night, and Paul's still stuck in the crater, the French soldier dying slowly beside him.
    • Paul tries to help the solider, but with both their canteens empty, he can only provide the man muddied, bloody water pooling at the bottom of the crater.
    • The next morning, Paul's distressed and alternates between wishing the French soldier would die and soothing him with promises that he'll live.
    • When the French soldier finally dies, Paul's overcome with guilt, realizing he didn't want to kill a man who might have been his brother without the war.
    • Paul promises to take care of the French soldier's family and begs the corpse for forgiveness.
    • Paul cries himself to sleep. He awakes to silence and crawls back to his line.
  • Scene 26

    Scene 26

    • Paul tells Kat about killing the French soldier, and Kat assures Paul there was nothing he could have done.
    • Paul sees Kat's view, concluding, "After all, war is war."
  • Scene 27

    Scene 27

    • The soldiers are dismissed and spend some recreation time at the Front Theater.
    • Paul and Albert decide to get drunk when they notice a poster of a beautiful woman and a posh gentleman.
    • They both reflect on how they'd forgotten such women exist in the world.
    • Despite not having a chance with her, they decide they should take a bath anyway. (Good call, guys.)
  • Scene 28

    Scene 28

    • Paul and Albert are bathing at the river when Tjaden and Leer join them uninvited.
    • The guys notice some French women across the river and attempt to entice them with their…ability to splash wildly.
    • Tjaden finally gets their attention with the promise of food.
    • A bridge sentry prevents them from swimming over, so the French women say to meet them tonight.
    • Tjaden calls dibs on the blonde, but Paul reminds him all is fair in love and war.
  • Scene 29

    Scene 29

    • Paul, Albert, and Leer swim across the river at night, and the French women welcome them—more accurately, they welcome the food—into their home.
    • Across the river, Kat pours drink after drink into Tjaden.
    • When Tjaden asks why, Kat says it is because the boys said to keep him entertained. Tjaden realizes he's been betrayed but passes out before he can do anything about it.
    • Paul lies in bed with his French, um, date.
    • He tries to explain to her how he'll always remember her, but the language barrier prevents her from understanding.
    • The three soldiers leave the house as naked as they came.
  • Scene 30

    Scene 30

    • The company marches to the Front and jokingly admires the nice, new coffins the army's prepared for them.
    • A bombardment hits nearby and the soldiers run, but Albert and Paul are both struck.
  • Scene 31

    Scene 31

    • Paul and Albert end up in a Catholic hospital.
    • A wounded soldier named Hammacher shares a bed next to them.
    • He says he hopes they don't die too soon—everyone else croaks before he gets a chance to know them. He's weirdly cheerful.
    • The nuns take a soldier out of his bed, and Hammacher tells Paul and Albert that the man is going to the "dying room," a room set up next to the morgue where they take the soldiers who have no chance of living.
  • Scene 32

    Scene 32

    • One night, Paul begins to hemorrhage.
    • A nun comes to treat him. Paul's worried, but she assures him they got to it in time.
    • The next morning, a doctor orders the sisters to take Paul away. Although the sister claims he is going to the bandaging ward, Paul believes he is heading to the dying room and screams that he won't die.
  • Scene 33

    Scene 33

    • The doctors amputate Albert's leg. Hammacher tries to cheer Albert up and prevent him from learning the truth, but once Albert realizes his leg's been lost, he swears he won't live his life as a cripple.
    • As Albert threatens to kill himself, Paul returns, happy to have come back from the dead. He tells Albert everything will be all right now. Bad timing, Paul.
  • Scene 34

    Scene 34

    • Paul nods his goodbye to Albert as he leaves the hospital.
    • Albert looks at a photograph of the two when they first enlisted.
    • He covers up the top half and looks mournfully at his legs.
  • Scene 35

    Scene 35

    • Paul returns home on leave and finds his mother ill in bed. He shows her the food he's brought with him, but she's more worried that he's starving himself.
    • Paul agrees to change into his civilian clothes to appease her. His sister, Anna, gives him his suit and the two briefly reminiscence about their childhood catching butterflies.
  • Scene 36

    Scene 36

    • Paul's father brings Paul to the beer garden so he and his friends can salute Germany's heroic son.
    • One of the gentlemen pulls out a map and shows Paul what must be done if the Germans are to win the war swiftly—basically the equivalent of a Sunday couch coach.
    • Paul contends the war looks much different at home than on the front line, but the gentleman continue to argue over how to end the war. Paul just leaves.
  • Scene 37

    Scene 37

    • Paul visits his old school and finds Kantorek still yammering to a class of young men about their patriotic duties.
    • Kantorek asks Paul to share a small story of some heroic deed. Paul refuses.
    • Once prompted on, Paul says, "When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all!"
    • The schoolboys call him a coward, and Paul leaves, realizing he shouldn't have come home.
  • Scene 38

    Scene 38

    • Paul's mother visits him in his bedroom and asks if he has to go tomorrow.
    • Paul lies and says yes.
    • She asks if he can't get a less dangerous job, and Paul says he'll arrange to get a job as a cook.
    • When she leaves, Paul wishes he could cry in her lap like he used to. Aww, just go ahead and cry, Paul: there are worse things in this world than being a momma's boy.
  • Scene 39

    Scene 39

    • Paul returns to the 2nd Company, but doesn't recognize any of the faces.
    • Tjaden enters from a food search empty-handed.
    • Paul offers him and the men the potato cakes his mother cooked.
    • Tjaden updates Paul on the fate of the 2nd Company—in short, of the old-timers, only Kat, Paul, and he remain. Paul goes out to find Kat.
  • Scene 40

    Scene 40

    • Paul and Kat reunite, and Paul tells him about the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life.
    • He confesses that Kat's all he has left, saying there are no lies between them at the Front. An airplane drops a bomb.
    • Shrapnel strikes Kat's shin.
    • Paul carries Kat to the infirmary, suggesting they work together after the war. Another bomb goes off, and Paul yells they won't get both of them in one day.
  • Scene 41

    Scene 41

    • Paul rests Kat on a cot in the infirmary, but the orderly tells him he shouldn't have gone through the trouble.
    • Kat's dead—shrapnel from the second bomb hit him in the head. Paul takes Kat's paybook and leaves the tent, lost and depressed.
  • Scene 42

    Scene 42

    • Back at the Front, Paul sees a butterfly just outside of his cover.
    • He goes to reach for it, exposing himself to a French sniper across No Man's Land.
    • Just as Paul's hand is about to reach the butterfly, a gunshot cracks.
    • Paul's hand retracts in pain and then lies limp in the mud.
    • Paul Bäumer dies.