Milestone's portrayal of Paul Bäumer's experiences on the Western Front depicts the brutality and mental anguish of war. The number of holds barred? None.
Splayed across Milestone's epically sized sets, men are mowed down by curtain fire, shredded by shrapnel, and beaten to death in hand-to-hand combat.
Following Remarque's original novel, Milestone doesn't simply focus on the bloody spectacle of war, but also careful shows the personal and mental anguish suffered by the soldiers.
Setting the film from the perspective of a soldier on the ground, Milestone doesn't provide dates, battle names, or other historical facts…because such information wouldn't be on a soldier's mind.
Without dates and other war-related facts, Milestone's film is too abstract to be effective.
Let's put this out there right away: neither we nor the film are suggesting that there's anything wrong with patriotism. Supporting your country certainly isn't a bad thing and can be admirable.
But the film does demonstrate the dangers of a specific type of patriotism called "chauvinism." Chauvinism is patriotism on steroids while working out to the tunes of thrash metal, resulting in "zealous and aggressive patriotism or blind enthusiasm for military glory."
And in 1914, the world had a serious case of chauvinist roid rage. Kantorek serves as the go-to example here. His impassioned speech about serving the fatherland and the glory of war shows a national mentality that leads to the deaths of millions of young men.
The film shows the greatest danger of chauvinism to be its inability to change based on new facts and the reality of a given situation.
The film shows chauvinism as a type of virus, contaminating one person and then the other like the flu. This is most evident in the classroom scene. As Kantorek spews forth his infectious rhetoric, we see him infect the boys one at a time.
Today they say "be all you can be" in the army…but that isn't the recruitment slogan in All Quiet's Germany. Joining the army means putting a pin in those fancy dreams and future plans of yours, likely indefinitely.
Paul and his friends begin their journey as young men with dreams of glory in the army followed by full lives when they return home. But as their wartime service drags on, they realize those dreams will amount to nothing.
Even if they manage to survive the war—and that's a big "if" by the way—their service has altered them in ways that will never allow them to reenter society to live the lives they and their parents imagined. Whether from mental trauma, physical handicaps, or simple recognition of the true depravity humanity is capable of, their futures have been destroyed before they even had a chance to begin.
Every character from the younger generation—i.e., Paul and his classmates—has his dreams destroyed by the war.
War destroys the dreams of the non-combatant characters as well. Paul's mother doesn't obtain her dream of Paul staying safe, Himmelstoss loses his position and becomes a grunt, and Kantorek will have to face the fact that Germany will lose the war.
This film shows WWI to be a horrible event in human history. (Because, you know, it was.)
But our focus on mortality here isn't simply to say people died in the war. That's a given. We instead want to focus on how the film portrays the pervading atmosphere of death that the soldiers lived with on a constant basis.
On the Western Front, death is always on a soldier's mind. He has to work hard to kill his enemy, worry about the deaths of his comrades, and understand that he could be killed at any minute by a random shell or bullet fire in his general direction. WWI saw nine million people killed. Paul's story serves as a reminder of what this huge number meant to an individual who lived among the nine million.
The same spades used to kill the rats are later used to kill enemy soldiers in the trenches, representing the relationship between man, death, and the brutality of the natural world.
The film's setting shows that war brings death to more than just soldiers. It brings death to the natural world, as evidenced by the splintered trees; to civilization, as evidenced by the bombed-out buildings and towns; and to our beliefs in a higher power, as shown in the destruction of the church.