When the film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, then the bestselling book in the world, premiered in Berlin in December of 1930, it was received not with acclaim or celebration but instead with a riot: An organized group of Nazis (including Joseph Goebbels) started heckling the screen; stink-bombs were thrown; mice released; police called. The film, which became a flashpoint of political debate, would subsequently be banned in Germany, though a heavily censored version would be released a year later. In America, however, it was a hit, ultimately winning both the Academy Award for Outstanding Production (later renamed Best Picture) and Best Director for Lewis Milestone.
Erich Maria Remarque’s novel unfolds in a series of impressionistic, often disassociated scenes; the film adaptation, by contrast, progresses as a traditional narrative, and places greater focus on Paul and his comrades, almost all of whom die by the end of the film. Although it employs a more conventional narrative approach than the novel, the film retains its sense of stark horror at the carnage of war and disillusionment with the nationalist project that motivated it.
Though All Quiet on the Western Front makes every effort to authentically represent the Germany of the First World War, it is a wholly American production. Made in Hollywood, its cast is comprised of American actors speaking in American accents, most notably the then-unknown Lew Ayres as Paul Bäumer, the film’s lead. By 1930, evidently, Americans were ready and even eager for the film’s anti-war message; many in Germany, however, were not. The University of Berlin’s main student association called for the film to be banned, and declared that it made a “mockery of the sense of sacrifice” Germany had experienced during the war.
The film does begin by invoking that sacrifice and duty to the fatherland. We see a celebratory military parade snaking through a small German town before quickly moving into a local schoolroom, where Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy), a man past fighting age, can barely make himself heard over the music playing outside. Instead of teaching his young male students Greek, Kantorek urges them to enlist. “You are the life of the Fatherland, you boys,” he tells them. “You are the iron men of Germany.” The boys in his class look less like iron men than earnest All-American teenagers; these charming, idealistic young white men would be at home on Ivy League campuses, or at least movies about Ivy Leaguers getting up to no good. It is difficult to imagine them in combat.
Kantorek tells them that it is their duty to enlist, and anyway, “I believe it will be a quick war, that there will be few losses. But if losses there must be…sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland.” Personal dreams and aspirations must fall to the wayside for the time being, Kantorek tells them, “in the one great sacrifice for our country!” The boys are easy marks. One imagines coming home in uniform, to the horror of his mother and the pride of his father; another sees himself driving in a military parade with girls on each arm. When Kantorek finally succeeds in persuading them to enlist, they leap up one by one, and Milestone cuts rapidly from each bright young face to the next. He will repeat this technique later in the film when they are no longer idealistic young men but men terrified of rats in the trenches and desperate to eat after their first battle.
When it banned All Quiet, the German government argued that it was merely more American anti-German propaganda, in which broad caricatures of German soldiers mocked and denigrated the German people. But All Quiet is not an anti-German film; instead, it attempts to rehabilitate Germany in the American imagination. During the war, the American propaganda machine had transformed Germany from a white European nation to the home of savage, inhuman—and therefore, nebulously non-white—beasts. In anti-German Hollywood films, German soldiers routinely raped, murdered, and pillaged; the war’s most famous American propaganda poster, meanwhile, depicted Germany as a monstrous, slavering ape making off with a helpless white woman. “DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE,” the poster exhorts. “ENLIST.”
The young actors cast in All Quiet could not present a starker contrast to the monstrous caricature of the German people that American propaganda had promoted during the war. Ayres—a slight man with a beautiful, boyish face and mournful eyes—is a particularly physically unimposing presence. His Paul Bäumer is not a pillaging rapist but instead an appealing, sensitive young man who dreams of becoming a writer.
During the First World War, propaganda had—at least, in theory—allowed the involved nations to dehumanize their opponents. As peacetime progressed, however, this fiction began to crumble, as the international success of Remarque’s novel suggests. Notable anti-war films of this period, including 1925’s The Big Parade, and All Quiet, include similar scenes of soldiers from opposing armies recognizing their essential sameness. The protagonist of The Big Parade cannot bring himself to strike the fatal blow to the German soldier he has wounded, and instead reluctantly gives him a cigarette. He pushes the wounded soldier’s face away from him, frustrated at being forced to see his opponent as human, but prays for him once he has died. Westfront 1918, a German film by G. W. Pabst, concludes with a wounded, semi-delirious French soldier clutching the hand of a deceased German soldier lying next to him in a hospital, exclaiming, “My comrade! Not enemy! Not enemy!”
This trope reaches its apotheosis in All Quiet, in a scene borrowed directly from the novel, in which Paul finds himself trapped in a shell hole with a French soldier (Raymond Griffith) whom he has stabbed while the battle rages around them. The Frenchman’s labored breathing and the oppressive sounds of exploding shells and gunshots persist throughout the scene, the sounds of battle sometimes overwhelming the dialogue.
These audio effects would have been novel to moviegoers at the time, who had only recently been introduced to sound films, and who had not yet become acclimated to the now-familiar sounds of the modern mechanical warfare. Paul is similarly overwhelmed by what he is hearing, but for different reasons. The mechanical apparatus of war is familiar to Paul, but the forced reminder of its human scale and cost drives him into a state of crisis. When the Frenchman’s labored breathing becomes too much for him, he shouts, “Stop it! Stop it! I can bear the rest of it, but I can’t listen to that! Why do you take so long dying?”
Paul veers between guilt and anger, even after the soldier has died, angrily asking the soldier’s corpse why he accuses him, telling him that he didn’t mean to kill him, and begging his forgiveness. Like his counterparts in The Big Parade and Westfront 1918, his proximity to his enemy forces Paul to recognize that there is little difference between them:
When you jumped in here you were my enemy, and I was afraid of you. But you’re just a man like me, and I killed you. Forgive me, comrade…Why should they send us out to fight each other? If we threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother…You’ll have to forgive me, comrade.
This statement of fraternity is particularly lengthy and explicit: Paul repeatedly calls the French soldier “comrade,” and even imagines that they could be brothers—a potent statement for a man who enlisted to serve his Fatherland.
When Paul finally makes his way back to camp, he feverishly tries to tell his friend Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) what has happened. Kat comforts him by pointing out a cheerful soldier sniping French soldiers from the safety of the trenches. Paul should try to be more like that. In war, worrying about the humanity of the people you have to kill will only lead to grief. Paul hastily agrees, eager to put the dead Frenchman out of his mind. “After all,” he tells Kat, “war is war.”
War is war is war is war—but why is war? Paul and his fellow soldiers can’t come up with a good explanation. After their first big battle, they try to work out how the war began, and come up short. “How do they start a war?” Tjaden (Slim Summerville) asks, and Kropp (William Bakewell) replies, “Well, one country offends another.” But, Tjaden argues, “How can one country offend another? You mean there’s a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?” The state politics that drive the war effort have little meaning to these soldiers. Tjaden does not personally feel invested in the conflict, so why should he have to fight? “It don’t apply to tramps like you,” Kat tells him. But tramps like Tjaden—and Kat, and Paul—are exactly the people who must do the fighting, and die for the cause, whatever that unspecified cause may be.
As Paul and his few fellow surviving soldiers grow increasingly disillusioned with the war effort, the chasm between the infantry soldiers on the ground and the home front jingoism widens. When Paul returns home for leave, he listens with grim humor and barely-contained rage as his father and his cronies pontificate about military strategy, trouncing the “Frenchies,” and pushing on to Paris. Paul sourly tells them that the actual experience of war is different than they might imagine, and one of his father’s white-haired, mustachioed friends chuckles and tells him, “You don’t know anything about it.” Paul might fight in the trenches, but he can’t possibly grasp the larger strategy, which is, to these men, the true meaning of war.
Of course, Paul and his comrades risk their lives, “and for that, you receive the highest honor.” Paul’s father believes every man in the war deserves the Iron Cross. But what use are these empty celebrations of valor if they only come after death? After this demoralizing episode, Paul visits Kantorek, who is still encouraging his new class of students to enlist. He eagerly introduces Paul to his students as “one of the Iron Youth who have made Germany invincible in the field.” We know better: Most of the other men with whom Paul enlisted, who sat with him in this very classroom, are now dead, and Germany will go on to lose the war. Paul is only home after a bad injury and a surreal, feverish stay at a hospital full of amputees and men terrified of dying.
The boys eagerly waiting to listen to what Paul has to say about the front are even younger than Paul and his classmates were as fresh-faced students. Though he at first resists speaking to them, Kantorek insists, and he finally gives in and tells them the truth. “You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you?” Paul asks him. “It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all.” His rejection of Kantorek’s rhetoric makes the students jump to their feet and call him a coward.
Even by the standard of more recent anti-war films, this level of explicit rejection of the most fundamental argument for military service is remarkable. In Remarque’s novel, Kantorek is ultimately drafted; here, instead, the focus is on the endless cycle of younger and younger recruits. “Now,” Paul reflects, looking at the children before him in horror, “they’re sending babies.”
All the young German men and boys, even the young boy Paul saw on the street dressed up as a soldier, have been co-opted into the war effort. This development does not bother the older men who are safe at home, but it deeply alarms Paul, who has seen most of his friends die and knows that he will likely die himself. The country has turned itself into a war factory and is burning its young men as fuel. The film’s final image shows a shot of the now-decimated company marching toward the front from earlier in the film, glancing back at the camera, superimposed over a cemetery full of white crosses.
The film’s grim anti-war argument is not a mockery of sacrifice, as the University of Berlin students who called for it to be banned suggested. It is a wholesale rejection of the concept, and the international success of the novel and the film underscores this point. Remarque’s novel is specifically German but also a rejection of the concept of devotion to Germany as an ideal worth dying for. By choosing to make a large-scale anti-war film told from the point of view of sympathetic, boyish German soldiers, with an appealing young star, Milestone and his producers at Universal Pictures were arguing against the nationalistic fervor that had led to the deaths of 20 million people in the First World War. If there was no difference between Germans and Americans, then what was the difference between Germany and America? Why should you be willing to die for Germany just because that happened to be the patch of land where you were born? Land is just land: A mountain in Germany can’t get mad at a field in France.
Less than a decade later, the world was at war again. All Quiet on the Western Front’s moment seemed to have passed: The Nazi regime burned and confiscated Remarque’s novel in 1933. A re-edited, anti-German version of film was re-released in America 1939, for which, Mark Harris writes, “footage that was sympathetic to German soldiers was removed and a voice-over was added, interrupting the film a dozen times to describe war atrocities and emphasize Germany’s plan for world domination.” Though Ayers would ultimately serve as a medic, he became a conscientious objector in 1942. A bout of public hysteria ensued, with Variety declaring that he was “a disgrace to the industry.” The army banned his films from screening at military bases.
Ayres’ reputation eventually recovered, but this nationalistic fervor shaped decades of war films and American public sentiment about the military. The Second World War is still generally considered a “good war” fought by America’s “greatest generation,” a sentiment promoted by the Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Though not all films fit into this straightforward rubric. Terrence Malick’s emphatically anti-war film The Thin Red Line, for instance, offers an alternative point of view.
War is hell, these films argue, but America’s soldiers are heroes to be revered and celebrated. In America, the First World War had largely faded from cinematic view until 1917 (a British film) achieved substantial box office and awards season success this year. But while 1917 is nominally about the hell of war, its English characters are noble heroes and its Germans faceless enemy combatants. As film critic Farran Nehme put it on Twitter, “silent/talkie WWI movies were full of bitter rage;  is venerate-your-veterans like Private Ryan.”
Yet All Quiet’s bitter rage and desperate desire to communicate to its viewers that the people they had been fighting a mere decade-and-change before were just like them still feels urgent today. War has changed a great deal in the past hundred years, of course: Wars are no longer fought on fields and in trenches, but in cities and via remotely controlled drones. But what may feel archaic to us now—bombs dropping from planes, or a soldier using a machine gun to shoot his enemy at a distance—was new at the time. The ability to cause such massive amounts of carnage remotely fundamentally altered the nature of war.
The proliferation of drone warfare in the 21st century has even more dramatically alienated American soldiers from their enemies, and American society has grown correspondingly disinterested in the wars it has been fighting for almost 20 years. James Fallows described the “reverent but disengaged” attitude that most Americans have toward the military as, “We love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them.”
Surreally, most Americans don’t think about the nation’s current military engagements at all, or imagine them to be resolved. Instead, (white) America loves to think about an imagined enemy. Stereotypical depictions of Middle Eastern terrorists and Mexican drug cartels in popular culture and civic discourse long predate the election of Donald Trump. But in the past three years, the President’s administration has habitually vilified Muslims and Latin Americans and enacted policies to keep them out of the country by any means necessary. He is the “DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE” president, but his enemies are everywhere, and he himself is the brute.
In this climate, All Quiet on the Western Front remains valuable. It is both thoroughly of its own historical moment and a timeless argument against war and nationalism: Though its urgent plea failed in its time, it resonates in this era of populist-nationalist movements. It was, no doubt, easy enough for white Americans to (at least temporarily) accept white Germans as sympathetic figures in 1930. Lew Ayres and his fellow actors do not exactly represent an oppressed class.
Still, All Quiet deliberately forces audiences to interrogate their own sympathies. It does not ask white viewers to look into the face of an ethnic minority and imagine a friend; instead, it asks viewers to look Ayres’ beautiful young white face and try to imagine the enemy. This is an impossible task, both because Ayres is so lovable and because “the enemy,” the film ultimately teaches its viewers, never existed in the first place. “The enemy” is nothing more than a frightened boy who loves his mother, dreamed of being a writer, and will die in the trenches before the war is over.