Sunday, April 2, 2023

Westfront 1918 (1930)

Director: G.W. Pabst                                         Writer: Ladislaus Vajda
Music: Alexander Laszlo                                   Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Starring: Hans-Joachim Moebis, Gustav Diessl, Fritz Kampers, and Claus Clausen

The German film Westfront 1918 is one of the earliest sound films, and may be the first that was ever made in Germany. Based on the novel Four Infantrymen on the Western Front by Ernst Johannsen, it’s by now the standard story of the horrors of trench warfare during World War One, and the humanity of the individual soldiers involved. The film was helmed by the great G.W. Pabst, who along with Fritz Lang, was one of the best pre-Nazi directors in the Weimar era. Though he had planned on immigrating to the U.S., he was trapped in Europe by the Nazis and wound up making a couple of films for Joseph Goebbels, and stayed in Europe after the war. The major drawback of the film is that it suffers from the obvious comparison to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front from a year later. But that’s not necessarily due to the filmmakers themselves, and more to do with the original source material. There’s a reason that Milestone’s film is so much better than Pabst’s, and that’s because Erich Maria Remarque’s story is a vastly superior story than Johannsen’s. Still, there are some nice cinematic touches, and the acting is decent, but the primary draw of the film is more historical than artistic

The story begins in France, at the home of Jackie Monnier where she lives with her grandfather. A platoon of German soldiers has invaded the farm and she tries to make the best of it, fending off the advances of all but one, Hans-Joachim Moebis, who is simply called The Student. The two fall in love just as he is called away to march back to the front. Having returned to the trenches, the lieutenant Claus Clausen needs desperately to communicate with the rear area to tell them their shells are falling short on their own men, and of course Moebis voluteers to be the runner so as to have another opportunity of seeing Monnier again. After he successfully completes his harrowing mission—and meets again with Monnier—he runs into platoon mate Gustav Diessl, a married man who is on his way home on leave, delighted at the prospect of reuniting with his wife after a year and a half of fighting. The last of the four soldiers, the Bavarian, played by Fritz Kampers is the comedy relief, a big, jovial man who tries to take care of the rest of the soldiers in his platoon. But as engaging as the characters are, this is still war, and that very identification with them is designed to jolt the viewer when the war touches all of them in one way or another.

It’s difficult to know how to judge the overall quality of the film, especially the sound, as all of the original negatives have been lost. That said, however, the visual quality of the Criterion edition is pretty good, but the sound suffers from jump-cuts that still exist in the best available print. The explosions and gunfire all sound a bit thin, but again that’s probably due to restrictions of the period. One thing that isn’t restricted, however, is the camera, and that’s probably the most impressive aspect of the film. Pabst and his cinematographer, the great Fritz Arno Wagner, keep their camera moving as if they were working hand-held seventy years later. It’s quite refreshing, and one moment in particular, a nearly three-hundred and sixty degree turn in a music hall, is notable. It doesn’t make up for the deficiencies in the screenplay, however, and so the story never really goes anywhere, though perhaps that’s the point. Viewers at the time were a lot more laudatory in praise of the film, and for good reason. A mere decade removed from the war, it was probably much more realistic that even the silent films on the subject. But nearly a hundred years removed, the film doesn’t have the same impact for modern viewers who have been spoiled by incredibly realistic war films beginning with Saving Private Ryan. As a result, potential viewers need to come to Westfront 1918 warned of its deficiencies so as not to be disappointed.

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