All Quiet on the Western Front

USA, 1930Directed by Lewis Milestone
Cast Lewis Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis Jr., Walter Browne Rogers, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Richard Alexander, Harold Goodwin, “Slim” Summerville, and Pat Collins, with Beryl Mercer, and Edmund Breese
Production Universal Pictures Corp. Print Source Library of Congress

Presented at SFSFF 2015

Live Musical Accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Essay by David Thomson

Erich Paul Remark was born a German Catholic in Osnabruck in 1898 and conscripted into the army when he was eighteen. In 1917, he saw a month’s action on the Western Front before being so wounded by shrapnel he was invalided out. Thereafter, he studied to be a teacher and started writing. His first novel, Die Traumbude (“The Dream Room”), appeared in 1920. Eight years later, he published Im Westen nichts Neues, which literally translated is “In the West No News.” At that point, feeling badly about the first novel, he changed his name to Erich Maria Remarque. Im Westen was called All Quiet on the Western Front in English. That title has passed into common usage to suggest an ironic or rueful sense of a false lull before the storm. We have lived in that gap ever since.

The novel sold 2.5 million copies in twenty-two languages. Immediately, it was purchased for pictures by Carl Laemmle Jr., head of production at Universal and son of the studio’s founder. The father had been born and raised in Germany and both Laemmles were devastated by the war—yet confident it could make a hit movie.

It was a direct but epic novel, passionate about the horrors and futility of war and haunted by the demoralization of young German soldiers. Several people worked on the screenplay, including George Abbott and Maxwell Anderson, and the direction was entrusted to Lewis Milestone, born Jewish and Russian. The film was a triumph and you feel its sophisticated vision early on: we see a man and a cleaning woman in a cramped hallway—then the man opens the door and we move onto the street outside with a busy parade of soldiers and a cheering crowd. This is a signal for the whole film where personal stories mesh with panoramas of action, with a feeling for depth and striking compositions that were new in 1930. Milestone became famous for aerial tracking shots of troops crossing no man’s land; he was using them as late as 1959 in Pork Chop Hill, about the war in Korea.

The film was as much of a sensation as the novel: Laemmle spent $1.5 million, and audiences came in huge numbers. All Quiet took an Academy Award for best picture and Milestone won for director. It is still one of the best films about the Great War, from that opening hallway to … well, I won’t spoil it, except to say that Laemmle and Milestone had a late idea of how to end the story. By then, Lew Ayres (he was Lewis then) was off on another job, so the hand you will see is Milestone’s.

Nearly everyone admired the film, except for the new Nazi party. They thought it was a discredit to German military resolve, and demoralizing. They burned the novel and banned the film. Remarque escaped to Switzerland, a productive career and a spectacular romantic life (he is said to have had affairs with Hedy Lamarr, Dietrich, and Garbo before marrying Paulette Goddard). But his sister Elfriede remained in Germany. She was arrested in 1943. The authorities said she had declared the war was lost already; they hated Remarque and the way he had dropped the German “Remark.” Elfriede was tried, convicted, and beheaded.

Remarque wrote other novels and had a huge 1945 hit with Arch of Triumph. In 1948 that was filmed, too, with Milestone directing a cast that included Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and Charles Laughton. I don’t know why, but it’s a neglected work.

For English and American audiences (it was banned for years in France), a part of the novelty in All Quiet is watching “enemy” soldiers and realizing they are just like our own. Remarque used that ploy again. A later novel was called A Time to Love and a Time to Die, once more about young Germans, but set on the Russian front and in a shattered Berlin. This time it was filmed, at Universal, in 1958, by Douglas Sirk, with John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver. Still, a big concession was made in both A Time and All Quiet for the characters spoke English—which sharpens the hypocrisy of the elderly teacher urging his students to their death; it also helps us feel the friendship developing between Paul (Ayres) and his older mentor, Katczinsky (superbly played by Louis Wolheim, who died in February 1931, before All Quiet won its Oscars).

Except that All Quiet on the Western Front was shot with two cameras, one for a sound film, and the other for a film that has music and sound effects, but no dialogue. That is the version the Silent Film Festival is showing—played instead with live music. Isn’t this a film about quiet? There are other benefits. The silent version is a little longer. It has intertitles, like most silent films. But because the characters are without voices, it is easier to feel they are German, or supposed outcasts to our sympathy. Synchronized dialogue was a concession to naturalism, even though it could rise to glory in our best talking comedies (The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday). Turn off the sound for those pictures and the films are lost. They have many beautiful cinematic moments, but they are a type of radio.

That thinking can work both ways. Step back from All Quiet being made on the cusp of the shift in technology and narrative approach. After all, a silent film festival need not stay in the past. There has been great reward and pleasure in rediscovering and restoring silent films, and that will go on some time yet before there are few gems left to be rescued. Moreover, the silent film is not just a measure of history or nostalgia. It is an authentic form, as natural and moving as black-and-white films.

You may decide that the silent All Quiet is superior to the sound version, which actually ruled at the box office—you must also remember that in rural areas, the conversion of theaters for sound was gradual and sometimes reluctant, especially as it coincided with the years of crash and depression.

I am working toward a suggestion. It happens that I sometimes experiment with ways of looking at a film. For example, there is a surreal beauty in running pictures backward. I know, that was not the original intention, but what is the pursuit of old movies but a chance to let time play with them?
Not long ago, I ran Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) with the sound turned off. I could not hear the speaking voices of Liv Ullmann or Bibi Andersson, or the sounds of Swedish. But my print had subtitles, so I could follow the dialogue and what we call the story. The film had a limited music score, by Lars Johan Werle, and I was depriving myself of that. There were a few pointed sound effects. So I was losing stuff, but I was gaining, too.

With sound, Persona is helplessly more naturalistic, the story of an actress who won’t speak and a garrulous nurse who fills the silence. But you can’t regard the film as simply a story that might have happened in life. Instead, it’s a dream, a process, a ritual, a trance that attains an insight and possibility that transcend realism. As the title indicates, the film is interested in identity. So it worked well when silent, because I began to look more closely at screen life as opposed to a lifelike story.

Then something else occurred to me. Suppose live and new music was commissioned for a reappraisal of Persona. Isn’t that what we do with new versions of Metropolis (which has already suffered a 1986 score by Giorgio Moroder). Suppose musicians employ some of Werle’s music but then explore the mood of trance and ritual. It might not be “better.” That doesn’t matter. More important, the new product would command fresh attention and wondering. And we all know (without fully understanding) the interplay of a silent film on the large screen of the Castro with striving musicians at the foot of the screen so that the automatic repeated event of a movie becomes a live performance. I understand that the makers of a film strove to get the marriage of picture, talk, and music “right.” But they always knew there were alternatives. When the BBC crime series Peaky Blinders plays on Netflix, it seems to get the 1920 period right. But then it adds a rock music score, as if to say, Don’t you realize, movies are artifice and magic? Didn’t Gone with the Wind have music fit for 1939? Imagine it new today with a score composed of blues songs, a background level of black feeling.

You’re uneasy about this? Well, recall how we enjoy a new score for a silent revival: think of Carl Davis on top of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. I want to test you one step further. Suppose we screened Vertigo silent? We would lose the voices of Scottie, Madeleine, and Judy; subtitles could be added, and we could do them less as natural talk from 1958 than lines of Beckett-like abstraction. (Actually some of Vertigo sounds like that already.) We’d lose Bernard Herrmann?! Well, no, that version will always exist. But suppose Philip Glass played a piano to Vertigo. I don’t know what the result would be. But some of it might be electrifying and would help do what needs to be done—it would let us see the film anew, fresh and dangerous and not just a revered rerun.

—David Thomson