A Brotherhood of Man: Westfront 1918’s Blend of Cynicism and Humanism

Note: This is the hundred-and-fifty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1930 film, WESTFRONT 1918, directed by G.W. Pabst.

War is hell, as the popular saying goes. G.W. Pabst’s WESTFRONT 1918 doesn’t disagree. By the end of his film, with its four central soldiers dead, dying, or insane, Pabst had painted a grim picture of the horrors of World War I, or The Great War as it was known ahead of round II. The final scene in a French church turned to rubble is lit in an almost Expressionistic mode, with shadows casting a pallor over the injured men who moan, scream, and stare in the silence of death. The doctors matter-of-factly go about their overwhelming business, with just one muttering “I can’t go on” before starting in on another surgery. In his first sound film, there is no doubt that Pabst’s cynicism defines its bleak tone, something he had employed in some of his masterful silents. But in his strain of German New Objectivity, perhaps cynicism is too negative a descriptor; indeed, the First World War was objectively and realistically terrible, whatever nationalism and “patriotism” may attempt to diffuse. With WESTFRONT 1918, however, Pabst also displays the humanity of a brotherhood of man (and as with most war films, WESTFRONT 1918 is overwhelmingly male-centered), a theme he would develop further with KAMERADSCHAFT (1931).

In a 1969 episode of the French TV show LES DOSSIERS DE L’ÉCRAN (1967–1991), a group of WWI veterans, both French and German, joined a couple of historians in remembering the war 51 years after its end. To spur the conversation, the group watched WESTFRONT 1918 before taking viewer questions, but besides initial prompts and conclusions, most of the conversation turned to more general matters about the war. But it was incredibly compelling, and veterans’ discussions about their horrific experiences is a perfect complement to Pabst’s film. It shows the reflections of the men who survived it, as opposed to the four men we followed and lost in WESTFRONT 1918. Their passionate assertion that WWI was pointless and that war must not happen again (one French veteran especially argued the pacifist viewpoint) makes clear the unique social impact of the old Great War.

Although there were German veterans in the episode, LES DOSSIERS DE L’ÉCRAN of course had a mostly French viewpoint. But WESTFRONT 1918, a German film made by an Austrian director, follows the German side. But the sentiment is the same, even in the context of Germany’s imminent defeat in the final days of the war (hence, the 1918 of the film’s title). WESTFRONT 1918, and KAMERADSCHAFT to a greater extent, could be considered an ensemble film, although more particular than the collectivism of many contemporary Soviet films.

The film focuses on four soldiers, only one of whom is actually named: Karl, The Student, The Bavarian, and The Lieutenant. This is also in order of how much time we get with each character, and fittingly, we see the most of Karl’s life away from the front. When on leave, he discovers his wife with another man, the butcher’s son; she claims it is to get “compensated” with some extra food for her and her mother-in-law. And indeed, food supply in Germany by the end of the war was tragically low. Karl almost lets the issue drop, walking out of the room until he sees his rifle on the ground. His face turns from resigned hurt, until the combat instinct kicks in, and he picks up the gun with an anger that eventually sends the butcher’s son out of the room. The rest of the time he is at home, Karl essentially ignores his wife, and she begs for one kind word. He never gives it to her, and as he lies dying in that broken French church, he sees her face swim in front of him, still begging for that kind word.

The Student’s story may appear more tragic. Like many foreign soldiers on both sides, he has an affair with a local French maid which turns to love. They promise to be married. The Student is saved from the penalty for desertion, after sneaking off to see his love again, by a fellow soldier; the brotherhood in action. This brotherhood raises its head again when Karl comes back to the front and learns that The Student was killed in a skirmish; The Bavarian saw him laying facedown in a puddle. They pledge to recover his body, but when they reach the spot where he was killed, only his hand reaches out from a mound of earth that covered him. His brothers cover his hand with dirt, and enter into the fight that would lead to their deaths as well. We never see the resting face of The Student. In spite of his youth and promise, he faces the anonymity of death in a pointless war as well.

The Bavarian has a less tragic arc, insofar as death can be “less tragic.” He is a career soldier, it appears, and faces the darkness with songs and jokes. The Bavarian is a gregarious fellow, and everyone in the troop appears to like him. Although he is not driven to recover The Student’s body like Karl (indeed, The Bavarian’s grimmest moment is when he delivers the news to his comrade with stark realism), he ends up accompanying him anyways. Why? Because, as he puts it, “he has to go now.” The Bavarian is perhaps the most inscrutable one of the four heroes, if only because we get the least insight into his personality. He is shot just before Karl, and he dies not next to him, but separated by a couple of other soldiers in the French church, a song on his lips.

The Lieutenant is also played relatively straight; he is a dedicated, and stressed, leader. Every time we see him, he is upset by some new development, not the least of which is friendly fire from his own army’s artillery. But in WESTFRONT 1918’s final moments, we see his built up stress crack his entire personality, as he stands atop a mound of bodies, staring blankly ahead. It’s the most striking image of the whole movie, and his baby-like crying as he is carried into the French church is the introduction to this final hell.

These brief forays into the defining moments of the four main characters show just some of the moments, big and small, that Pabst uses to demonstrate a brotherhood of man in the face of extreme horror. He can’t help but use his sound innovations, which allowed him to maintain a camera nearly as mobile as a silent one, to constantly shell the audience with gunfire, explosions, and cries of pain. He shoots (with the aid of cinematographers Fritz Arno Wagner and Charles Métain) the battlefields of France with a stark realism, under gray skies during the daytime and with darkness punctuated by small lights during the night. Pabst cultivates, with his so-called Objectivity, a feeling that war is hell, indeed. But human souls are what go to hell, and absent any obvious sin, the souls of Karl, The Student, The Bavarian, and The Lieutenant clearly don’t belong there.

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