Westfront 1918 is a thoroughly grim but generous film about German soldiers and the women left behind. The director is the great Austrian G.W. Pabst, never known for his upbeat perspectives. Westfront 1918 reminded me of his easier-to-find film The Joyless Street in its view of women under the stress of war’s deprivations. Westfront 1918, though, is much more invested in the fate of a particular group of soldiers who have little choice in their lives. Although the characters are mostly German, this group of men could be interchangeable with types found in any number of American/British/French war films of the period. The lesson of these films tends to be that the trench soldiers are innocently trapped in something they can’t change; the evil lies with commanders or, more broadly, with the vague forces that created the war in the first place. Pabst doesn’t conjecture; he keeps his lens squared strictly on the victims.
The film has a number of unusual storylines. Or, well, perhaps it isn’t the stories that are so unusual, but the particularly stark and uncompromising ways they are examined. There are several striking, even unforgettable, scenes. One comes early in the film when a group of soldiers is trapped underground in a collapsed trench while above them, their troop is being shelled in “friendly” fire. This scene is intensely claustrophobic, yet highlights a moment of strength and bravery that is not melodramatic, but necessary — a big brute balances on his head the few boards that keep all the dirt from caving in and smothering them. Another comes later in the kind of scene that Pabst is so good at — the depiction of the fallen woman and how she meets her fate. This section has some gripping moments involving the cheated-upon husband, played by Pabst regular Gustav Diessl. There’s also the story of “the kid” (or “the student”), a sweet and brave sort who wants to marry his French sweetheart. Speaking of that sweetheart, there are some fairly overt sexual references that swirl around her; she is always surrounded by these German soldiers who have encamped in her house, and she seems pretty happy about it. The film opens with a drunken scene of soldiers groping her — in a friendly way, of course, and she doesn’t mind — that we probably wouldn’t see in a film today. Yet it somehow feels realistic in the context of the film, and the men have a protective attitude toward her and toward her lover, “the kid.”
The dire circumstances surrounding war are brought in directly, but in a way that didn’t feel to me too heavy-handed. They fit the storyline. There is a quick but pointed reference to the consequences of fleeing the service (“we’ve found a deserter; you’d better oil up your guns.”). There are many touching, sad examples of the food shortage in Germany; the home situation is so grim, in fact, that the soldiers would prefer to fight rather than to stay there. Going home on leave brings more grief than respite. There is no refuge. I admire this about Pabst. He just does not quit. He gives the viewer no pleasant out and little humor. His film The Joyless Street is similar in this regard — women and men will do anything when food is involved, with the men using the women’s starvation as a means of leveraging power over them. Anyone who doesn’t understand the situation in Germany during and after the first world war, and why that led to the rise of the Nazis, would do well to watch these films. While The Joyless Street had Garbo around to pretty up and class up the town, there’s none of that in Westfront 1918. There is not a hint of glamour. Even the French girl lives in poverty.
What makes this all tolerable is the warmth of the soldiers toward one another. There is a kind of matter-of-fact camaraderie and understated love. Nobody gives speeches about it. It’s shown primarily through the visual interactions between the characters — the way they help one another and work together — and through little jokes they make and songs they sing. If there is redemption, it is in these small moments of humanity.
Westfront 1918 was made in 1930, well after the war, but with the economic conditions still in place. The film was resented by both the right and the left — by the right, for its clearly negative views about war — by the left for its unwillingness to delve into the political conditions that caused it. Some viewers found Westfront 1918 too graphic in its violence, although this isn’t a problem for us now, since almost fifteen minutes were cut by the censors. The random way that the men come under fire — the constant sense of doom — and the fact that this could come from either side of the battlefield is shown again and again. It put me on edge for much of the movie.
While this is an early sound film, and the sound is used effectively, the cinematography, pacing, and the emphasis on “showing” over dialogue demonstrated that Pabst didn’t sacrifice his usual techniques and way of seeing for the new medium. The singing, joking, and whistling in the trenches were natural and effective. The only time the sound got in the way was in an extended stage show that appears in the middle of the film — and while it’s a rather creepy stage show, given that there is a clown involved, and while the sound slides nicely into the following juxtaposing scene, it is still an awfully long demonstration of “here’s what we can do with music!”. But for the most part, sound is used well and doesn’t sound messy, muffled, or awkward.
This was a striking and disturbing movie. I’d love to see a good version of it. I have no idea why it is so hard to find. I found a DVD copy with English subtitles on Amazon, but it is a bad print and clearly was just duplicated by some guy off of some old video. That the film was great enough to transcend its fading and bad duplication says much in itself. If someone would take the time to clean this up and put it out in a good edition, I’m sure it would be viewed as often as All Quiet on the Western Front. It is at least as good. With the interest in Pabst’s work (and many critics list it as among his top five films), and the general interest people have in war films, it’s perplexing to me that this hasn’t been resurrected. Too bad Pabst didn’t just toss Garbo in and have her stand beside the trench. Then we’d get a good print.