Movie of the Day : WESTFRONT 1918 (1930) by G.W. (Georg Wilhelm) Pabst


There are problems I have with G.W. (Georg Wilhelm) Pabst’s 1930 film, WESTFRONT 1918, in terms of pacing, etc., but honestly those are problems due to this being the early days of sound. Pabst was very much on the cutting edge, moving from the success of the silents, to this new and quite frankly uncertain technology of recorded sound.

Actually compared to his contemporaries at this time, his use of sound and camera work, is quite frankly masterful and groundbreaking. Conversations that a modern audience initially writes off as clunky, and “been there, done that” , you have to realize, this film, is where those conversations were first heard in cinema… ever.

Also the war he was recounting, and the horrors he was recounting, was a war only 12 years old, a defeat only 12 years old, that the director, and all participants, and all viewers of the movie (the movie was an international success), would all still be suffering the horrific effects of in 1930. Everyone had lost someone or something in that war. Lives, limbs, liberties, land.

It was infact an incredibly courageous movie to make in 1930s Germany, especially considering the growing political climate, While the movie found favor abroad, in Germany it made enemies, its message of the senselessness of war, and a hope for peace, was seen as problematic to a new right-wing party, that was growing in popularity, and was galvanizing the upcoming German generation, based on the very concept of the rightness of war, and the end to a shameful peace.

In 3 years from the release of WESTFRONT 1918, that Party would be dominant in Germany, Pabst films would be banned, his message of the senselessness or war and a call for peace considered treasonous and anti-German, and in 6 years after that party had conquered and crushed all opposition and dissenting voices at home, they turned their eye abroad for “breathing room” and grabbed Poland. And by so doing got the war they wanted.

Be careful of getting the things you want.

A little over 20 years after the most horrific war the world had ever seen, in 1939 a new generation was ready for the bigger, better sequel.

They were called the Nationalist Socialist Party. But History would only remember them… as Nazis.

But that was to come… a horror undreamt of, out of a horror hoped to be a cautionary tale.

Pabst with his 1930 film was creating out of whole cloth, out of his imagination and creativity, the manual for sound in films. Also the film story-wise is very sophisticated and daring and as Jan-Christopher Horak points out in his essential 2016 Introduction to the Eureka Blu-ray release of the film, whereas ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, while as notable for its brutal war scenes, it does offer the reprieve of the cherished home-front, etc.

In contrast Pabst’s WESTFRONT 1918, from a jovial, even insipid beginning, it begins to become this slog, this ever more dire, and ever more unrelenting slog, as illusions fall away, it becomes this slog in the trenches, and unlike most films then or now, it shows that direness on the home-front as well. The breadlines, the devaluation of the currency, the things wives and mothers have to do for Soldiers to have a home to return to. In Pabst’s WESTFRONT no one is untouched by War, and there is no idealized home to return to.

In that way it is still more daring a film then most war films made in the 100 years since, that all to some extent continue the sentimental home-front portrayed in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

Also once it gets into its battle scenes, in its fealty to the cinema of war and death, it remains a striking portrait of and indictment toward… a war that was at the time so horrible that it was called the war to end all wars.. A war fought with such futuristic and cutting edge new weapons for mass murder, that the sheer scope of it broke minds as well as bodies, of a generation that was barely removed from the horse drawn carriage and the repeating rifle, having to deal with fighter planes, machine guns, chemical weapons and tanks.

In hindsight we can see it was only the beginning, it was the war to begin all world wars. But Pabst, does his part to warn his age away from that path. And his film, almost a 100 years later, remains a cautionary tale, for our age as well.

The film is not without flaws, but its strengths, particularly in that latter half, are in its nightmarish depictions, expressionist horror tinged images, limbs of the unburied dead sticking up from mud and muck. And also its depiction of war as the illusion of motion, where a generation of young men, spent 3 years dying by inches for the same blood soaked plot of land…, remains revelatory and required viewing.

KAMERADSCHAFT (1931) is the sister film to WESTFRONT, and filmed immediately on its heels, and the film works very much as an answer and continuation of that earlier  film. And in this film you see a real exponential growth, as Pabst has learned from his work on WESTFRONT and KAMERADSCHAFT is just the superior film, being compelling throughout.

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