The greatest German WWI film

Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885-1967) was one of the trinity of great German silent-film directors (with F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang), and the one whose sound films most overshadow his silent ones.(Die Freudlose Gasse/Joyless Street (1925) with Greta Garbo; Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora’s Box/Lulu (1928) and Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), both with Louise Brooks, being the canonical silent classics. His most notable sound films were Kameradschaft/Comradeship (1931), Die Dreigroschenoper/3-Penny Opera (1931) and the truncated Don Quixote (1933) with the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title role).

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“Westfront 1918” (released in Germany in 1930 with the title of the novel by Ernst Johannsen on which it was based, “Vier von der Infanterie” — Four from the Infantry) was Pabst’s first sound movie. It has sparing dialogue, but a great deal of the sounds of gunfire and explosions (and tank treads and a wounded French soldier screaming as he slowly dies between French and German lines, plus way-too-long dance-hall entertainment). Pabst was determined to maintain the visual richness of silent movies despite the near immobility of the first sound cameras. I imagine that much of the sound was added later.

The movie was released after the worldwide best-selling novel about the disillusionment of some German infantrymen in the trenches of the First World War, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (which was published in 1929, filmed in Hollywood in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone and winning a best picture Oscar; it arrived in European cinemas six months after “Westfront 1918,” but in North America half a year before it).

“Westfront 1918” does not portray the arc from schoolboy innocence through enthusiasm for the war to numb weariness of trench-warfare carnage. At the start of Pabst’s movie (which takes place entirely in the war’s last year), the soldiers are already weary and demoralized, though there is some entertainment provided them, and “the very blond soldier always called “the Student” has a relationship blooming with a French (Belgian?) barmaid Jacqueline (Jackie Monnier). To see her, the Student volunteers to take a message to regimental headquarters to correct the aim of the artillery, which is killing soldiers with “friendly fire.”

As he is returning to his unit, he meets a comrade, Karl (Gustav Diessl) going on leave. The middle third of the movie chronicles Karl’s disheartening homecoming.

When Karl gets to his working-class neighborhood in Berlin, his mother has spent half a day in a food queue and though seeing him, is unwilling to give up her place in line to go greet him. What instead “greets” him is finding his wife in the arms of another man, one who has been called up to military service, due to leave the next day. (Being a butcher’s assistant, he was welcomed in part because he brought food with him.) There are some very melodramatic confrontations and one of the scenes of a staircase that are practically a signature of German directors who got their start between the world wars.

Karl is eager to return to his comrades, but seems to have developed a death wish that will drag them to special danger. For reasons other than patriotism, Karl volunteers to lead a patrol to be in position to attack the flank of an expected French attack. As it turns out, the attackers so outnumber the defenders that after inflicting many casualties, those who stayed behind are wiped out as completely as those who volunteered for the dangerous mission. (The Student has died a gruesome death during Karl’s furlough, and the patrol buries his corpse).

Having lost all those he commanded, the lieutenant (Claus Clausen) goes crazy. In a French hospital, Karl dies with his wife’s parting plea for forgiveness (which he was unable to give her) haunting him, and a wounded French soldier holding his hand. This prefigures the ode to solidarity in Pabst’s great movie about a mining disaster and brotherhood, “Kameradschaft.”

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The movie was sensational. Reportedly twenty people fainted during its première, and the movie was then ferociously criticized from the right for “defeatism” and from the left for failing to provide any indication of how the soldiers came to be in their hopeless position. It is not difficult to see the basis for either side’s viewing. There is no patriotism on view, and not only is there nothing in the way of background to the war (why the men were fighting), it seems to me that there is precious little about the four infantrymen. “the Bavarian” (Fritz Kampers) likes to sing and drink and would rather pick of flees than volunteer for any dangerous mission, the lieutenant is a fanatic pursuer of glory for the Kaiser, the Student wants to have romantic/sexual experience before he dies, Karl’s furlough looked forward to his furlough home. None of them is at all rounded a character, and without the German title for guidance, I would not have known that the movie was about four infantrymen (I’d have thought two: Karl and the Student, the two who have some experiences away from the lines shown, more like the German soldiers in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

It is difficult for today’s audiences to realize the accomplishment of Pabst ca. 1930 in integrating sound while not losing the dynamic visual aspects, including camera movement, or of cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner (who had shot Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and Lang’s “M” and would shoot Pabst’s closely related masterpiece “Kameradschaft” in making night-time scenes credible and in moving the camera through the trenches and across No Man’s Land. The combat scenes in the first and in the final third are impressive images of chaos and terror. There is no Rambo-like action hero, no aestheticizing of battlefield slaughter (as in “Thin Red Line”) or romanticizing of death. Death generally comes very quickly, but sometimes agonizingly slowly. “Westfront 1918” is not a movie that would make anyone march off to war.

The movie ends with a placard “Ende?!” Obviously, the answer was “Nein!” A whole lot more warmaking was brewing. As soon as Hitler came to power, the movie was banned. Pabst survived the war and in 1955 made a movie “The Last Ten Days of Adolf Hitler” (as observed by a captain played by Oskar Werner).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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