It’s hard to name Western propagandists whose message advocated for war. During times just after intensive global strife, particularly war, lots of the filmmakers sought to describe the horror of war and its lasting effects on the people war devours. Even when one side defeats an enemy, lots of the film made after World War II and Vietnam chose to downplay the idea of victory. The message gleams clear from the genre–there are no winners in war, but losers and broken men.
There’s no indifference in war. Even Leni Riefenstahl, a German woman fascinated and adored by Nazis, but never officially charged as a Nazi, never made “pro-war” films. Ostensibly, she made movies with titles like Der Sieg des Glaubens (“The Victory of Faith”), and her twin masterclasses, Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (documenting the 1936 Munich Olympics). Close readers know there’s a deeper story to her work, to sow discord for one group and glory for another. This in and of itself isn’t problematic. In fact, most chronicles of war take a stance on an output–death toll–or outcome–a changed national jingoism. Even the documentaries, supposedly full of fact and nothing else, are also full of tone and timbre. There’s no such thing as objectivity. You know how you know? Ask five people to define what the word “objective” means.
This take is not defending Leni Riefenstahl, the propaganda she and her, er, cronies produced, or any of the outputs or actions of war. It is worth noting, however that German propaganda seemed especially fiery and pugnacious, especially between the two world wars, inclusive. The spewed lots of pro-might campaigns, ruthlessness toward apologists, and calls to arms to preemptively position the Fatherland toward a position of power. Odd then the timing of All Quiet on the Western Front, a perfectly placed propaganda picture released as Wiemar was on its last legs. It delivered a clear message and implied a warning to the next decade: war is not glory; war is not might; war is death; and war is fright.
Of course the movie was swiftly banned as the final legs of Wiemar collapsed and gave into Nazi rule. All Quiet on the Western Front, filmed with little fat, and edited with precision, is perfectly executed propaganda, one with legs that could have undercut years of Goebbels’ work if spread surreptitiously and across Germany. It needed a less aloof, anti-Riefenstahl character to push its spread. What truly makes this movie brilliant is that it predicted the very backlash it received.
The level of meta-awareness was likely unprecedented on screen, and however goofy the war scenes seem to a modern audience, the graphic detail is truly a sight to behold. Throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, instead of the graphic bullet-riddled IMAX scenes found in modern war epics, audiences are delighted instead with non-graphic bullet-riddled scenes found sped up to 24 frames per second. The progress we’ve made is: war movies look more fantastic but less realistic. It’s the lasting power of old film.
Our main characters fall for the original trope that all susceptible teens fall for in these kinds of situations: the older jingoistic “adult,” likely brainwashed by propaganda (also very meta), claims that to matter–to mean something–it’s time to go to war “for the Fatherland.” But what does this man know of the horrors of war? And how does any “adult,” then, make the counterfactual that war is hell? What kid, raised in the throes of ignorance, has the capacity for empathy?
If an audience went into All Quiet on the Western Front blind, it would be understandable to mistake the German army for the Americans. In effect, the idea of the front line is agnostic; all the 2nd Companies in every army are the same. To those who would send their boys to war, their faces all look the same; in the beginning, they’re excited to serve their country, wide-eyed; in the middle, they’re scared to death; and in the end, death or inertia creeps.
And they die the same way no matter the colors they’re wearing. And they’re scared.
Of all the epic war films nominated for Best Picture, the ground zero for excellence is All Quiet on the Western Front. It set a tone for decades of epic war movies, but none really matched its power until the 1970s–technology still prevented CGI from warping story into spectacle. And it was likely the best movie from 1929/30. The other nominees from this year: Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Big House, and The Love Parade have (or likely have) merit on their own, but none that have such lasting power for 90 years.