“Westfront 1918” (“Vier von der Infanterie”) is a German war film that came out the same year as “All Quiet on the Western Front”. It has been overshadowed by that behemoth, but they are both great war films. “Westfront” was directed by the renowned Georg Pabst. He was the leading practitioner of the New Objectivity style of filmmaking in Germany. The style was noted for its sober realism. Its bleak, down-to-earth take on trench warfare got the film labeled “cowardly defeatism” by Josef Goebbels and it was one of two dozen films banned by the Nazis. Another was “All Quiet”. The movie was an adaptation of the novel by Ernst Johannsen. The cast included several well-respected German actors including Gustav Diessl who was held prisoner for a year during the war.
“Westfront 1918” follows four soldiers in the closing days of WWI. They are the Student (Hans-Joachim Moebis), Karl (Gustav Diessl), Bayer (Fritz Kampers), and the Lieutenant (Claus Clausen). This is not a heterogeneous small unit movie. None of the four has a memorable personality or background. Pabst is profiling the war, not the soldiers. The movie is a series of episodes that could have happened to any soldiers, but specifically to these four. Only the Student and Karl get arcs and they are romances that cover the two extremes of male/female relationships in a war.
The movie opens with the core group in an inn enjoying some time away from the front. Note the tilted portrait of Jesus. There is a saucy serving girl named Jacqueline (Jackie Monnier). This is the first inkling that this movie established some standard tropes of WWI movies. One of the soldiers refers to coffee as “Negro sweat”! A character develops as the Student falls in love with Jacqueline. It is his first experience with love, so he is all in. They will get married after the war, if all goes well. All does not go well. Their rest is interrupted by orders to the front. There they undergo a bombardment that features Karl, Bayer, and the Lieutenant having to hold up the ceiling of their dugout with their heads and hands. The Student digs them out when the roof collapses. Ironically, they are being bombarded by their own artillery.
As is realistic for this war, combat is followed by down-time. The men attend a stage show that includes a girl leading a singalong to a risqué song, a comedy routine, and a brass band. (This scene has the only appearance of a xylophone that I have seen in a war movie.) The scene will influence the famous cabaret scene in “Paths of Glory”. Karl gets his first leave in eighteen months. On the home front, civilians are forced to wait in long lines for food. When his mother sees him, she decides not to lose her place in line. This is not the clueless home front that Paul Baumer returns to in “All Quiet”. Karl’s wife is not having to wait in line at the butcher shop because he catches her in bed with the butcher. Awkward! She begs forgiveness (“It’s not my fault”), but Karl is stoically unforgiving. There is a definite chill for the whole of his leave and he returns to his real home with his marriage on the rocks. The whole trip home is totally believable.
It’s time to get some characters killed and the rest of the movie is bleak and bleaker. There is a great long combat scene that includes lots of grenade throwing, poison gas, and some really cool tanks lumbering toward the German lines. The movie has some of the best bombardment effects of any war movie. One character gets shell shock. 25% seems about right. Three of them end up in a charnel house of a hospital. An indelible image is of a damaged crucifix in the midst of the horrific wounds. Karl summarizes the theme of the film when he says “It’s everyone’s fault”.
This is an amazing movie. The film is a technical marvel for an early talkie. Pabst uses tracking shots (one of soldiers moving through the trench inspired a similar shot in “Paths of Glory”), but also allows the French soldiers to move across the face of a stationary camera for the big battle scene. The tanks come to the camera for a striking effect. It contrasts well with the modern style of making the camera part of the action. It is one of the great combat scenes in war movie lore. The action is realistic, as are the sets. No man’s land, the dugouts, and the trenches are well constructed. There are nice little touches that you will see in few if any WWI movies. For example, a message is sent by a dog. Since the movie is not character driven, the acting does not stand out. In a sense that is a compliment because the actors do not overact like you see so often in the early talkies. There are no scene-chewing moments like in “All Quiet”. Even the shell-shocked Lieutenant is effectively played based on actual cases. Needless to say, the movie is strongly anti-war. There are no heroics in the film. The violence is not exhilarating like in other so-called anti-war movies.
In comparison to “All Quiet”, “Westfront 1918” covers some of the same ground but in a more depressing way. Keep in mind that the time frame for the two are very different. Paul and his comrades go to war in the naïve early days and gradually learn that war is hell. The home front does not reach that point at all. In “Westfront”, the war is already lost and the home front is suffering as evidenced by Karl’s wife and mother. Another way to see the different perspectives is to compare the two hospital scenes. The hospital in “Westfront” is horrific and not orderly with nice rows of cots. Also note that in “All Quiet”, the dugout roof does not collapse. On the other hand, “Westfront” has four songs including two in a row! Both movies have powerful scenes, but “All “Quiet” is more epic in scope. It has more of a flow to its plot and this is mainly due to it following the Baumer character. None of the characters in “Westfront” are memorable, but that was not Pabst’s goal.
“Westfront 1918” is probably the second best WWI movie. It is obviously a must see. I have to admit I am embarrassed to admit it took me this long to watch it. In my defense, it is not an easy movie to find and is criminally underappreciated. I found little information on it from my usual sources. At least the readers of this post will now know a bit about it. My work is done.
GRADE = A