The Conveyance of Societal Misconceptions in All Quiet on the Western Front
Scripted dramas or even comedies are most often intended to have some central purpose behind the film. Yet with so many movies today, only a number stand out prominently which display important lessons about life, the country, and the world. One movie in particular that resonates is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), based on its same-name novel (1929) by Enrich Maria Remarque (with the movie being assisted by Remarque himself, Maxwell Anderson, Walter Anthony, and others). Multi Academy Award-winning, the movie follows a group of men who join German troops during World War I, where their love for their country is utterly crushed by the mental and physical stresses of combat.
In World War I, a number of countries in Europe began fighting when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand launched Austria-Hungary into conflict with Serbia. Fearing the threat of Russian intervention, Austria-Hungary requested support of the war from Germany, who obliged. With two countries now fighting Serbia, Serbia requested assistance from Russia, who agreed to fight. With the four countries at war, Germany attempted to foil Russia by attempting to capture France (to the west), but the German troops passed through Belgium to the northwest to do so. This was a violation of a neutrality agreement, so Great Britain joined the war, along with France. Any hope for maintaining peace in Europe practically abolished, “The Great War” was in full effect.
The war was not simple, and progressed incredibly slowly. More specifically, a conception in World War I was a fighting tactic called “trench warfare”, which was dreadfully sluggish and often yielded very few land gains. In fact, large numbers of men would die or be killed in the trenches due to its slow progression, only to ultimately gain but a mile or two in the fierce battle; these types of locations is where All Quiet on the Western Front begins to place its story. The “Western Front”, as people would come to know it, served as one of two parallels stretching north and south along Germany’s borders (with the “Eastern Front” on its other side) where most trench warfare was primarily concentrated. To the east, Germany was trying to prevent French intrusion, while to the west, battles with Russia were fierce. The difficulty of the battle truly began to show in the film as the men, following main character Paul, entered the war with the Germans. As time progressed, seemingly extreme mental trauma, shellshock, and numerous deaths began to overtake the group. Paul and his friends, once patriots supporting the war, soon grew to despise the notion of it. During Paul’s leave from the war, he goes back to his hometown in Germany. It is perhaps at this point that one of the finest dynamics ever in a movie was revealed. As he walked along the streets, he saw young German boys casually fiddling with unloaded rifles, and schoolboys being encouraged by their teacher to support (and thus to eventually join) the war.
In fact, Paul had gone to the very schoolhouse where he once learned to support the war, to which the teacher and students called him a coward when he said he hated fighting in it. A coward. A man—still a teenager himself, at only 19 years of age—sent to fight for his country, then meeting the devastation of war, only to be called a coward for, like all men did, growing a hatred for holding a loaded barrel to another man or fearing death by artillery. Paul came to find that the citizens directly unaffected by war efforts were utterly oblivious. Shortly thereafter, Paul went to the local bar, where men were discussing the war and saying, “The Germans should just go and take Paris!” At this point, it was evermore clear to Paul that many citizens clearly did not understand the conventions of the war strategy, and how near impossibly such a thing would be at the rate of trench warfare. The loss of human life and intentional destruction of vast pieces of territory was simply already too great.
Notions such as this became readily apparent in the film, which clearly depicted the public’s disconnect with war efforts, even when their own country was involved. More modernly, the film’s central dogma can also be interpreted to symbolize the public’s misunderstanding of war veterans, and that more insight must be had when confronting them or discussing war. Of course, overall, the aim of All Quiet on the Western Front is to discourage the practice of war and to show that it by no means is “great”, and should ultimately be avoided at all costs. This helps people to sympathize with soldiers on all sides of the battle in the First World War, and teaches others to understand the physical costs and mental shakedowns imposed on them—not only in World War I, but in all wars. Unsurprisingly, the thematic illustrations of the film were so powerful that the United States banned its sale and showing for a period of time between World War I and World War II, fearing the public would not support the Second World War as it went into the 1940s. Soon after the war’s end, however, the movie was put back on the shelves for generations to understand an ageless concept: war never changes, and war is not the answer.