Westfront 1918: War Is Hell

On Film / Essays — Jan 30, 2018

Georg Wilhelm Pabst (1885–1967) is one of the least appreciated of the early directors. His films are much better known than he is; despite the fact that he made at least eight pictures of major significance, there have been only two book-length studies of his work in English, both of them now out of print—compare this with the masses of text on his Weimar-cinema contemporaries Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. And yet he brought Greta Garbo to international fame in her second starring role (The Joyless Street, 1925), made a strange and evocative attempt to put Freud’s ideas into cinematic form (Secrets of a Soul, 1926), made Louise Brooks into an icon (with Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, both 1929), and directed a raucously effective adaptation of The Threepenny Opera in 1931 (although the play’s author and composer, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, both sued him for his trouble).

He also made The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), which in its obsessive fascination with reflective surfaces is one of the most beautiful silent films—and which is also, thanks to its screenplay, one of the silliest. It’s hard to get a bead on Pabst. He made every sort of picture—fables, fantasies, historical reconstructions, spy thrillers, comedies, sex farces, literary adaptations, mountain sagas (he codirected the Leni Riefenstahl star vehicle The White Hell of Pitz Palu, 1929)—and worked in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and even, briefly and bitterly, the United States (the widely derided A Modern Hero, 1934). Despite his international career, he made the fateful decision to return to the Axis states in 1938, ostensibly to take care of family business in Austria, which did not assist his reputation abroad (although he later tried to repair it by directing both the first Hitler-in-the-bunker drama, The Last Ten Days, and one of the first plot-against-Hitler movies, Jackboot Mutiny, both 1955).

Perhaps the trouble with Pabst was that he was a purely visual filmmaker. He was at his best in the silent era and made little of note after 1931. Even at his peak, he often seems to have given insufficient consideration to the quality of his screenplays, and by all accounts he was deaf to dialogue. He might be seen, therefore, as a directorial counterpart to those stars whose careers plummeted with the coming of sound, were it not for his first sound film, 1930’s Westfront 1918, along with 1931’s Kameradschaft (Comradeship), both of which employ the medium brilliantly. They use sound in ways that had no parallel at that time, in fact, since sound recorders on a set were then generally sealed in a booth, while Pabst insisted on using a mobile soundproof case; he and his colleagues also took an adventurous approach to verisimilitude in the sound editing. The results are often eerie: the blasts and the uncanny silence between them in Westfront 1918; the trapped miners frantically tapping on pipes in Kameradschaft. Pabst was fully in command of his senses; what he lacked, perhaps, was language.

Such was the pace of Pabst’s production that although Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft were made in adjacent years, they were separated by The Threepenny Opera as well as a picture called Scandalous Eva. You could nevertheless see them as twins; if they were the only two films by Pabst you ever saw, you would have a fairly clear notion of his auteurial stamp: men in groups; societies in stress; tight, enclosed spaces; bitter, foolish, ordinary heroism. That he nevertheless doesn’t seem to have ever made another film quite like them further strengthens the idea that they are paired, one idea in two parts. One of them is a war picture, the other a mining-disaster story, but both involve the two warring sides of Germany and France. Since the war in question is the First World War, fought in the trenches, it follows that both films contain digging, explosions, buckling walls and collapsing ceilings, chest-deep pools of muddy water. Since the stories are about group efforts, the movies are ensemble productions and their actors are character players; these are not star vehicles. And they are action pictures: the dialogue is minimal and instrumental, and social relations are summarily accounted for, often wordlessly.

Westfront 1918 came out almost simultaneously with Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which it resembles in many outward particulars: it is set on the German side; it focuses on a tight unit; it is structured so that a character’s furlough falls halfway through the film and separates everything into before and after; it kills or maims all its principals by the end. The differences between the two films, meanwhile, are instructive. Milestone’s picture, a huge international hit, had Hollywood financing and Hollywood equipment; its cast, including extras, ran to the hundreds, whereas that of Westfront 1918 is in the dozens. Furthermore, All Quiet serves up moral lessons and engages its characters in philosophical discussions. There are no discussions of much moment in Westfront 1918, and its only formulated message comes in its very last shot. And Pabst’s movie is much smaller-scale, having disturbed maybe a couple of acres of ground and demanded only three or four sets to be built, yet its setting is more viscerally credible than that of the Milestone picture, perhaps because it is that much more intimate. And, unlike a Hollywood movie rigged with moments of comedy and romance to appeal to the broadest swath of viewers, it does not let up for long from its bleak intensity of purpose.

That is to say, it includes both romance and comedy, although neither of them takes up much time or ends up being much fun. Westfront 1918 allows only fleeting instances of ordinary human emotion to point toward hope before summarily obliterating them. The major one of these emotions is fellowship—the film’s title could just as easily also be Kameradschaft. The unit’s composition follows the now-familiar principle, then perhaps in its infancy, of apparent ill assortment: thrown together by large impersonal forces, characters who might have been taken from all four corners of the potential audience find themselves drawn by battle into a bond that is nearly familial in its adhesive strength. Thus we have the wide-eyed student (Hans-Joachim Moebis), the crusty but good-hearted prole known as the Bavarian (Fritz Kampers, who appeared in more than 250 movies between 1913 and his death in 1950), the cleft-chinned unwilling hero Karl (Gustav Diessl, a Pabst standby), and the lieutenant (Claus Clausen), who struggles all through the picture to keep his agreeable, rubber-mouthed comedian’s face in a cast of Nordic severity. They each wear the outward signs of their dramatic and social rank, until such nuances are dissolved by the leveling imminence of death.

The characters’ four arcs proceed differently: The student loses his virginity both literally and, in the trenches, figuratively. Karl, the everyman who is accorded an actual name, is also accorded an actual, ongoing life—a spouse, a mother, and a Berlin apartment—outside the war, but the strain and privation of that life destroy him even before bullets finish him off. The Bavarian, who is perhaps a career grunt, needs no more than a song and a laugh to preserve his emotional balance in the midst of devastation, but that of course proves insufficient. The lieutenant, who for most of the picture appears to be less a person than a military rank, unleashes all his bottled-up humanity when he finally goes floridly to pieces at the close. None of their ends is explicitly foreshadowed, and yet we know early on that nothing will turn out well. Even before the student’s fate is sealed by his night of love, Pabst, to make doubly certain that we get it, has him walk past an improvised sawmill where soldiers are turning out wooden crosses for graves by the hundreds.

Westfront 1918 alternates fleeting pleasure with durable horror in a rhythm that gradually abbreviates the former and extends the latter. The strangest interlude occurs a bit past a third of the way through, when suddenly the picture takes leave of the action for an entire music-hall performance at the soldiers’ canteen, including a short-skirted chanteuse, musical clowns, and a military band, an extravaganza that occupies a mere seven minutes of screen time but feels much longer. None of this is presented to us from any particular point of view. We are simply there, in the audience, taking in the tawdry, cheerless professionalism of the routines as if the bit were a simple entr’acte, devoid of authorial signposting—as if we were soldiers who needed a break, whatever form that break might assume.

Death, when it arrives, is incidental and almost low-key. The claustrophobia of the trenches, with their rivers of mud and cascades of dirt; the intensity of the shelling, which might come from any direction (our heroes are besieged early on by friendly fire); the suddenness of the appearance of French helmets from over the top or from the rear—these are dramatic and unsettling but ultimately have nothing on the single rifle shot that arrives invisibly. The focus through most of the picture is relentlessly on the up-close and immediate, perhaps to counter the effects of the martial and patriotic rhetoric that by 1930 veiled official memory of the war in Germany. Pabst limits his forays into symbolism to the very end of Westfront 1918, when an improvised field hospital in a church supplies it all: a man who realizes he is blind, another man who finds that he has no legs, a toppled crucifix the Christ figure on which looks like all the other bodies, a collective admission of guilt voiced by one of the four leads, an invasion of the soundtrack by organ notes.

Westfront 1918 does a signal job of conveying the fear, monotony, dirt, and exhaustion of the trenches, the boredom and uncertainty so poisonous that men would risk their lives just to leave the holes in which they were stuck. The camera is stationary in the trenches but runs wobbling along the surface up top with the soldiers. You see the blackout at night and the whiteout in daytime, hear the unsettling clicks and whirs that fill the silences between blasts. The process takes its toll on the viewer, who has been accorded ninety-six grimly visceral minutes of the outward signs of war. What the movie does not do is take any larger view. The men at the front are being butchered on both sides; at home, the people starve. No one, apparently, is to blame. War is a natural disaster, an act of God, though perhaps it could be alleviated if only we learned to love one another.