After commenting at the end of my last review that my intention was to allow myself the pleasure of watching a few classics over the coming weeks in the end I chose the road less trodden and decided I’d go for something new. The hope, as always, being that whatever I decided upon would end up blowing my socks off. I’d sit afore the screen, agog with wonderment as the story unfurled, pulling me emotionally along for the ride. I’d arrive at its finale spent and without an ounce of spare emotion. That, my friends, is the dream. It’s a dream I occasionally get to live. Was today one of those days? I shan’t ruin it upfront. Read on old chum, read on and you will glean the answers you crave.
Westfront 1918 (1930) is generally spoken about as the German equivalent of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and on the face of it I can kind of see why. It’s from the same era, it’s obviously anti-war and it’s a bit dark. But when you get knee deep into it you quickly realise it really doesn’t have very much in common with ‘All Quiet…’ as it happens. Nope sir, ‘Westfront 1918’ is very much its own thing.
Director GW Pabst is well known for creating ‘New Objectivity’, a cinematic realist movement (with similar goals to the Dogme 95 manifesto of Lars Von Triers and his crazy chums). The point being to show the world as it is with a minimum of creative fuss. Let life tell its’ own story. What this basically means for us is that we have four main characters, very different types, who all have short bits of their lives laid bare before the cameras. What it lacks in classical narrative story-telling is more than made up in the natural unravelling of the details of the characters’ lives.
From the opening sombre music and it’s opening scene with a group of German soldiers trying to rape a French woman who seems to take it ably in her stride, it’s clear this is going to be a bit different. To place it in some context ‘Wings’ and ‘The Big Parade’ were just three or four years before, with their romanticised, Hollywoodised, sugar coated view of the war. To open this film with grizzled soldiers grabbing at a young French maiden like ravenous dogs is a big step from what had come before.
We see one guy return home to see snaking queues for heavily rationed food and he then happens upon his wife inflagrante delicto with the butcher’s assistant. His reaction to this is brilliantly written. It seems to break him and without raising voice or hand he simply returns to the front with less hope than ever. The real enemy here is the war itself and those who caused it. His wife, the butcher’s boy, the shivering waifs queueing on the streets, the French, the British and everyone else are all victims of this war. No-one wins.
It’s worth mentioning that this is clearly not a film knocked out by the Hollywood machine. The early tit grabs, dropping the N word a couple of times and a realistic looking make out session show that we are clearly in Europe. Sexy, romantic, red blooded Europe. The natural story telling style means that there aren’t many twists and turns for the viewer to deal with. This doesn’t mean it’s easy to watch. As with most trench based war films this is very much a warts and all kind of film.
The trench scenes are pretty good. The sounds and sights of hand to hand combat are probably the high point of the film. The camera work for these scenes is great. Static cameras covering small sections of no mans’ land show vignettes of the action. Men enter stage right, advance, dive for cover, rise, get shot, fall and that’s it. Time and time again this happens. Rarely do any men reach stage left. The sparse simplicity of it, the letter box view of the world and the ghostly advances of the nameless, faceless men is brilliant. It’s understated, slightly haunting and above all real looking. I can’t think of any other film that has done anything similar.
I should point out the not so good bits. There’s a kind of intermission in the middle where Pabst, probably giddy with the creative opportunities afforded him by his first talkie, allows the story to stop and simply entertains us with 10 minutes or so of xylophone solos, a clown singing and a creepily long close up on a woman’s dancing legs. I guess he’s just trying to show the world what sound on film has to offer but to the modern viewer it adds nowt to the film.
As ever with trench films there are the requisite pointless deaths and howls of pain from no mans land. There is one moment which is very reminiscent of ‘All Quiet…’ where two guys fight tooth and claw in a shell-hole with only the one survivor. If you’ve seen ‘All Quiet…’ you’ll know the bit. Interesting point here is that these films were in production at roughly the same time so they both came up with similarly written, lit, shot and acted scenes on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
***Warning***, I’m now going to talk about the ending so if you’re sensitive about spoilers then please just stop right here and do something less boring instead.
The ending is well good. Karl, the dude who walked in on his wife playing bedroom badminton with the butcher’s boy is mortally injured. We see him slowly expire as he sees a vision of his wife. The camera slowly fades to black and his previously animate face, through a trick of the camera and our eyes, turns into a bleached white skull. A blinded poilu next to him picks up his hand and says ‘Comrade, no enemy’. And there is the point of it all. Whatever side of the battlefield they began the day on, they were all victims of the conflict, the war killed them, not the enemy.
What a film. It’s hard to watch, it’s scratchy and shouty and slightly annoying at times and the musical interlude is a bit weird but this is a belter of a film. It steers clear of the tried and true, it’s staunchly anti-war without shouting it from the rooftops, it’s real, unapologetic and gritty. It’s horrible to watch and that’s how it should be.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the best Great War Films are the ones that don’t entertain, at least not in the traditional sense, but rather leave you with an uneasiness that’s hard to shake. ‘J’accuse’ (1916) does it, ‘King and Country’ (1964) does it, ‘Black and White in Color’ (1976) does it. These are great films that are central to the reason I love watching Great War Films and I’ve just added another one to that list. As I do on occasions, I implore you, if you’ve not seen it, go quickly and see it here on the youtubes or find some way of purchasing it and watch it. You won’t regret it. It looks like Amazon have it so Clicky Clicky here for a potentially slightly iffy burned DVD.
Next up I think I need to centre myself after the froth I’ve just whipped myself into. I’ll drop it down a notch or three. Something that’s easy to watch but ultimately a bit of a damp squibb. Maybe ‘Warhorse’ (2011).