All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Milestone

So today is the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, which fact is something I think most Australians are probably sick of hearing about by now; there’s been talk of “Gallipoli fatigue” in recent weeks as media outlets have been forced to admit their commemorative programming just hasn’t been drawing the audiences they’ve hoped for. Now that the big day has actually passed, I daresay we can now resume our lives and carry on, but I still felt I should watch something to commemorate it myself. The obvious and logical thing to do would’ve been to watch Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (which I recently saw accused of kind of kickstarting the “Gallipoli industry” as it now exists), but 1) I don’t actually own it and anyway 2) why on Earth would I do the obvious and logical thing? As such, I went for something that, in its way, might be more suitable (and, amusingly enough, it apparently also played its first New York session on this day 85 years ago)…

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Now, I’ve said before that early talkies can be a bit of a grind, especially since so few of them have incidental music, just opening and closing music… and Lewis Milestone didn’t even want that much; he wanted no end music and the film was only restored to his original intention (as much as it could be with something like 15-20 minutes apparently lost for good) long after his death. And AQotWF is surely a grind, but not for the usual early talkie reasons. It’s just really fucking heavy. The length is a bit wilting and the narrative perhaps too episodic to counteract that, and yet it’s still one of the very best films to have emerged from that difficult time when Hollywood was still getting a grip on an industry-changing technology called sound. It was a fairly big production (and must have been a reasonably quick one, too, given the original German novel only appeared in January 1929), and you can see that throughout the film (there’s some great deep focus stuff that lets you see—especially on blu-ray—just how much business Milestone could fit into a frame). It’s also pretty unrelenting in its bitterness; the film’s tendency to heavy-handedness and speechifying is undeniable, but it’s also impressive in its determination to be as brutal as a film made in 1929/30 could be…

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…indeed, every time I see the film I’m amazed yet again by the above shot. I know no one took the Production Code too seriously before 1934, but I still can’t believe those disembodied hands that a German shell just forcibly separated from their former owner actually made it into the film. I’ve seen far more explicitly graphic things than that, obviously, but something about that is still kind of shocking.

Not everyone appreciated the film’s many virtues, of course. It was banned in this country, which is faintly ironic given how one of our supposed defining myths is, lest we forget, a catastrophic and pointless wartime engagement of the sort this film depicts. And it was banned in France until the 1960s, and in Italy and Austria until the 1980s (though Wiki implies it may have been shown before then and no one realised the ban had never actually been lifted). And as for Germany, well, yeah. The book had caused a stink of its own, so the film was going to do the same thing, with the Nazis pestering the few cinemas showing it and eventually banning the thing. So many films that were controversial a long time ago kind of lose their strength with time. Not All Quiet, which is still kind of overpowering in its grimness. On a day which causes so much angst in certain quarters of this country about the glorification of war as part of the national narrative, I was pleased to see again a film that resolutely refuses to do so.

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