Film and Literature. The Novel "All Quiet on the Western Front" and its Film Adaptation
What makes it so unique? … the fact that Remarque does not spoon-feed his reader page by page with ready-made attitudes, but leaves him to draw his own conclusions from the book.
from “Die Welt am Montag”
(quoted in Barker and Last, page 38)
Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a book about German soldiers at World War I. When the war broke out, the whole class of schoolboys joined the Army a few months prior to their official draft date. These young boys were swept away with the patriotic rhetoric and could not wait to go and fight for their country. They were so engulfed by war romanticism that all they could dream about was uniforms, victories, glory, popularity with the weaker sex and all other nonsense that was used to portray the war in the most attractive way. The infatuation with war started to fade during their training days in the camp, but a more bitter disillusionment was yet to come. When the boys were sent to the front, they realized that war was nothing but mud, pain and death. The story is told in the first person by the main character and protagonist, Paul Baumer. It is important to notice, however, that the narrative is told from “I” as frequently as from “we” to emphasize the collective nature of the war experiences.
Erich Maria Remarque had the first hand experience of the war: he was a young soldier on the Western front. And he wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front” because “he had […] been suffering from serious bouts of depression, the underlying cause of which remained a mystery…” (Barker and Last, 33).
It was through these deliberate acts of self-analysis that I found my way back to my war experiences. I could observe a similar phenomenon in many of my friends and acquaintances. The shadow of war hung over us, especially when we tried to shut our minds to it. The very day this thought struck me, I put pen to paper, without much in the way of prior thought. (Erich Maria Remarque as quoted in Barker and Last, 33).
The novel begins with these words:
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war. (Remarque, page 6).
A war is not a thriller
Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime. ~Ernest Hemingway
The major theme of the novel is the futility and senselessness of war. Remarque offers such a graphic portrayal of war horrors that it seems unfathomable why people still engage in such abominable activities. Why do two countries have to send their men to kill each other when all they want is to live in peace? When Paul seeks forgiveness from the French soldier that he killed, he says: “Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” (Remarque, 191).
For all the clarity, immediacy, authenticity and convincingness of the major theme of the novel, it is not very simple. Remarque was blamed for all sins possible: misrepresentation, misconduct, desecration of the war and its heroes, partiality, emotional imbalance and pacifism. The book was treated as a political manifesto, which it was not, and was banned in Germany in 1930 and was publicly burnt by Nazis in 1933 (Barker and Last).
The novel was published in 1929 and soon after in 1930 the film “All Quiet on the Western Front” followed, which was a faithful adaptation of the novel. “The landmark, epic film, made on a large-scale budget of $1.25 million, was an Academy Award winner for best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone). […] It was a critical and financial success, and probably the greatest of pacifist, anti-war films …” (Dirks).
Being a faithful adaptation of the novel, the film manages to convey the major theme very skillfully. The film seems to be very realistic and authentic. Of course, it cannot include all of the details of the book, so there are some modifications of the original that do not distort the main message. However, the major difference between the novel and the film is that the film does not offer such graphical portrayal of the unspeakable war horrors as the novel. The only episode where we see such detail is the hands of a French soldier hanging on the wire. Another difference is that the film tries to compensate the lack of descriptiveness that we see in the novel by adding more action that characters take. For instance, in the novel, Paul never delivers a “Peace speech”, yet it does not distort Remarque’s themes because Paul’s speech is consistent with his character.
The Movie is Greater Than the Book (Not Quite!!!)
Language and Grammar of Film
In the most dramatic battle scene which helps immensely to convey the meaning of Remarque’s work, there are two distinct uses of the camera: both high angle and low angle. The battleground is being shown from the high angle: we see soldiers from both sides running around like crazy and the impression is unmistakable that they all are helpless and doomed. They die en masse. But soldiers are both victims and death instruments, for death is not only inflicted by inanimate objects such as shells, but also by the hands of soldiers themselves. In order to convey this duality, the director alternates the use of high and low angles when showing individual soldiers. We see death from the high angle when one soldier stabs another and the next scene the same content (different people) shown from the low angle.
In one of the most significant sequences, when Paul stabbed a French soldier, Gerard Duval, with a bayonet, but failed to kill him to completely, the alternate use of high and low angles is most remarkable. Unable to escape from the shell-hole and unwilling to finish the dying man, Paul is suffering from bouts of guilt and self-accusation. The scene is shot from the low angle, where the French soldier lies elevated above Paul, who pressed himself against Gerard boots and implores for forgiveness. Given the low angle, the body of Gerard fills most of the screen and he is the mute and unbearable accusation for Paul. When Gerard finally dies and Paul gets a chance to escape, the angle changes. Gerard is no longer important, he is just a corpse lying in mud, and for Paul, looking from above, he is small and insignificant and this experience has to be put behind.
"Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?"
Mise en scene
Since one of the major themes of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is comradeship, there is frequent use of circular arrangements of figures on the screen. The distance between soldiers is shortened in comparison with what we would normally expect the friends to keep between each other. Soldiers are often in the intimate zone of each other, holding hands, embracing and protecting each other. In the scene, when Paul Baumer comforts his dying friend Franz Kemmerich, he puts his face against Franz’s with almost motherly tenderness and this scene looks very authentic and heart-rending.
There are also a number of motifs in the film, as well as in the novel itself. One of them --a butterfly-- was used very skillfully. Paul used to collect butterflies in his childhood and they represented to him peace and beauty of the world that only existed prior to the war. At the end of the film, as the war is almost over, Paul was sitting in a trench and saw a butterfly. He reached for it as if it were the personification of coming peace and at this moment a French sniper shot him.
The director used a chronological order in the film as opposed to the novel, where Remarque used flashbacks. However, there was a moment in the film that provides logical correlation between the beginning and the end. It was used to connect the scene where the boys went to the front line for the first time and the scene of the epilogue. “The young men, marching in a column, look back (with a haunting, sad look) at the retreating vehicle that brought them there” (Dirks). They all turn back one by one clinging to their escaping past and terrified of their nebulous future. They do not know what awaits them, but we can see on their faces that they are not optimistic. In the epilogue, the same scene is superimposed with the view of a cemetery covered as far as you could see with simple sepulchral crosses. This artistic touch makes a very strong emotional impression and very effective conclusion of the film. There, where the soldiers are going, the only thing they will meet is Death.
Cross-cutting is used in the film very skillfully, especially in the major battle sequence. The action takes place simultaneously, the French attack, the Germans try to defend their lines, then the situation changes -- now the Germans attack, and the French are on the run. The director used shots separately, first to depict one side, and then the other to separate visually two major forces in the battle. Often, cross-cutting is used to separate and at the same time to connect logically the event and the emotional reaction to it which helps add more expressive impact. “When one of the [French] soldiers is annihilated by a hand grenade upon approaching some barbed wire, only his hands are left, oddly still gripping the wire. Paul turns away in disgust, recoiling at the unspeakable horror” (Gee). The remaining hands and Paul’s reaction are shown in separate shots thus focusing the audience’s attention equally on both events and connecting them logically together.
The Battle Scene
The screen version which was done masterfully is a true adaptation of the novel. I believe that faithful adherence to Remarque’s novel together with the talent of the director and the star performances of the film cast make the film watchable even today.
However, I believe that the book has a much stronger emotional impact on readers. So, my recommendation would be to read the book first and then watch the film. And better yet, read the whole trilogy, comprised of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “The Road Back”, and “Three Comrades”.
"Trenches, hospitals, the common grave--there are no other possibilities."
“All Quiet on the Western Front.” 3 June 2002 <http://www.allmovieguide.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&sql=A1579>
Barker, Chirstine R., and R.W. Last.Erich Maria Remarque. London: Oswald Wolff, 1979.
Dirks, Tim. “All Quiet on the Western Front.” 27 May 2002 <http://www.filmsite.org/allq.html>
Gee, Rick. “The Great Anti-War Films. All Quiet on the Western Front.” 27 May 2002 <http://www.lewrockwell.com/org/gee5.html>
Remarque, Erich M. “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1987.
[of course, my bibliography tells you when the paper was written - in 2002. But I first read the book in 1990. I read it more than once. I love Remarque because I can identify with his characters. And if you remember that the book was written in 1929 and the film was done in 1930, it is apparent that all this information still holds true whether the links that I used in my research are still active or broken. Just read the book.]
Butterfly represents peace, beauty and transience of life
© 2011 kallini2010
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