**Special thanks to Movie Madness in Portland Oregon for having this on their rental shelf!**
The First World War is a sadly neglected subject in our modern age. Films about World War Two have become quite popular in the past ten to fifteen years as a sudden awareness of how many veterans from the conflict are dying all the time, yet barely a note was played when Florence Beatrice Green-the last known veteran of WW1- passed away in early February of this year. One can speculate why no one (at least of my generation) seems to care all that much. To be fair it was a war that accomplished very little (besides being a major cause of WW2 that is), and this film illustrates that to a tee.
As a trailer for this epic does not seem to exist, you will have to do without. The film follows the activities of a squad of German infantrymen in the trenches of France late in the war. Their life is of course far from idyllic, with death surrounding them at each and every second- you are just as likely to get buried alive in an artillery barrage as you are shot by the enemy. Will the squadmates make it out alive? Watch and see.
You are probably thinking this sounds quite a bit like All Quiet On The Western Front (Also a talkie released in 1930 with similar anti war sentiments) and you would be correct. While the similarities between the two are numerous, both are based on different novels. The main difference between them is Westfront 1918 is by far the bleaker film in overall tone. AQOTWF however has a far more memorable ending and wider distribution which is likely why this film is the much better known of the two which is honestly quite unfortunate once you see both, as each has a very strong statement.
This is Director G.W. Pabst's very first talkie. For those of you who are woefully unaware, he directed many films- perhaps the most famous of which the three which feature silent film goddess Louise Brooks. Pabst does some incredible work in this picture. Whereas American talkies generally feature talking just for the sake of it, Pabst litters the film with normal chit chat and everyday interactions. There really is no plot necessarily, and the film plays like a series of long vignettes. This makes the film feel more like a documentary than a movie played out by actors, which definitely works to its credit.
One thing that really struck me was the amount of tracking shots present. Films of this era often feature static camera work (many early screen actors had theater experience, soit makes sense), and Pabst even went so far as to make sure he had a way for the sound to keep running along with the shot. How on Earth Pabst and his crew managed to do this with 1930's sound technology we can only guess at, but this achievement should not be overlooked. We take it for granted that movies just have sound now and it is easy to lose sight of just how difficult adding sound to motion pictures was in the beginning.
Remember when I said this movie was bleak? I meant it. There's loads of shots of the muddy and barbed wire strewn no man's land to exacerbate the death that surrounds our characters sure, but there's a whole lot more than that going on. One of the most memorable sequences for me was when the character Karl (played by Gustav Diessel, who appeared in Pabst's film Pandora's Box and Fritz Lang's The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse amongst other films) goes home on leave. Upon arriving home he finds his wife in bed with another man. Such an occurrence is most certainly common during wartime and for a film in the 30's to show such frank expression of human sexual needs is equal parts daring as it is accurate.
The DVD I viewed for this review is actually a DVD-R. For reasons unknown to me, this film has never had a DVD release, only VHS. A film of such seminal importance deserves better, and the print used to strike the copy is littered with breaks and abrasions. Interestingly the opening titles of the film are entirely in German yet there are several intertitles that appear throughout the film in English. Why this is I do not know, and I can only assume that they were added to the US theatrical release as the ability to add on screen subtitles simply did not exist. Do not quote me on that last bit, but I do know that redubbing films at this period of time was an incredibly expensive endeavour, so if adding intertitles in English was a way around this (however clunky the finished product) it would make perfect sense to me. Although I do know it was cheaper to reshoot an entire film in a different language than it was to overdub, and I have heard that at least three different versions exist (French, English, German) but cannot confirm this as the German version is the only one I have seen available.
The cut I watched is presumably also missing some footage (total running time for review copy: 90 minutes), as IMDB lists three different lengths for this film depending on where it was released- mot notably the original German cut ran for 97 minutes. That footage was probably lost during later re-edits of the film in its native Germany, where Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had the film banned. The irony of banning an anti war film during war time really amuses me to no end. In the end, this film seems to have been all but forgotten by critics and film buffs alike which is a sad fate for a film with such a powerful message to deliver and such a technical and cinematic triumph as well.
If you are interested in talkies or films about WW1 I highly recommend this title. In fact I just recommend it period if you love movies in general. While finding a copy is not necessarily easy (some editions of this film lack subtitles, beware!) the end result of your search should prove worth it. Thankfully for those of you who don't necessarily want a physical copy, someone has uploaded it in its entirety onto youtube in a far better quality print than what I viewed and is from a Janus Films print as well. Considering that Janus is responsible for the Criterion Collection and has not released this yet is truly baffling.
Get to it already Criterion!