“Niemandsland” (No Man’s Land) is a German WWI movie. It is also entitled "Hell on Earth". It came out around the same time as “All Quiet on the Western Front”, but is much less familiar to war movie lovers. Like most WWI movies, it is firmly anti-war. The movie leads with a title card that proclaims: “This is a story of conflict! Not of victory or defeat. Not of armies and generals. This film portrays the lives, loves, and hates of five men and their families. Their experiences transcend war. Their plea for understanding is a call to all embittered humanity?”
The movie begins by introducing us to five soldiers who are identified as The Englishman, The Frenchman, The Russian Jew, The Vaudevillian, and The German. There is a cool montage that jumps from country to country. One thing the nations all have in common is the enthusiasm of the public for the war. Suddenly we are at the front in a dugout in no man’s land. The German and The Englishman rescue a wounded soldier who is shell-shocked to the point where he can not talk. They are joined by The Frenchman and The Vaudevillian who mutters “we’re here because we’re here because here.” At first their attempt to go back to their own lines is discouraged by machine gun fire, but soon they settle in because the war sucks. This gives them time for exposition. Meanwhile on the home front, the ladies are suffering.
Obviously, the movie is meant to be an allegory. The theme is the soldiers of WWI are all humans thrust into fighting each other. If they could just get to know each other, the war would end. This is a bit simplistic and not exactly ground-breaking. The film is heavy-handed and predictable. The plot is like that of a play. There is a lot of talking, but little of it is confrontational. The movie is very micro. Almost all the action takes place in a basement. The home front scenes add little to the narrative unfortunately. Surprisingly, there is little character development beyond the names of the characters. In fact, as in the case of the black vaudevillian, they are stereotyped. He’s the comical one. The acting is broad and none of the cast stands out.
“No Man’s Land” is a must see for any war movie lover determined to watch every significant WWI movie. Everyone else can skip it. It is definitely an antique. Although a talkie, it plays like a silent movie. It does not compare favorably with contemporaries like “All Quiet…”. For instance, the one scene where Paul stabs the Frenchman in the shell crater and then ruminates on man’s inhumanity towards man, is more effective than the entire plot of “Niemandsland”. But perhaps I am being too harsh. The movie was a sincere attempt to avoid another world war and should be lauded for that although it is easy to snort at the execution.