A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, May 16, 2016

Westfront 1918 (G.W. Pabst, 1930)

A Swedish poster for Westfront 1918
Authenticity is a problematic criterion to apply to any work of art, but especially a motion picture, considering that fakery is a given at almost every level of its creation. Even a documentary is subject to editing, narration, and various manipulations of point of view. We usually critique a film's authenticity only when it serves our own agendas, or when it is so manifestly lacking that it stretches credibility. Pabst's Westfront 1918, an exceptionally effective movie about German soldiers in the last days of World War I, just happened to be released in the same year as All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930), which won the best picture Oscar. It's been some time since I last saw All Quiet, but I recall it as an extremely well-made movie, also about German soldiers in the last days of World War I, as well as one of the first best picture Oscar winners that a general audience can still watch with appreciation today. But the German soldiers in All Quiet are Americans like Louis Wolheim (born in New York), Lew Ayres (from Minneapolis), and Ben Alexander (from Nevada). Pabst's film features German and Austrian actors, one of whom, Gustav Diessl, had actually been a prisoner of war during World War I. So Westfront 1918 would seem to have the authenticity criterion sewn up. Does this necessarily make it a better film than All Quiet? The truth is, I would have to rate it a draw: What Milestone's film lacks in authenticity it makes up for with Hollywood finesse, an efficiency in storytelling and the polish brought by technical expertise. There are parts of Pabst's film that seem extraneous, such as the section in which the troops enjoy some rather corny vaudeville routines. But the movie also has an abundance of extremely well-staged combat scenes that demonstrate the confusion and terror, the "fog of war." And it has a core of fine performers -- especially Diessl as Karl, who goes home on leave to find his wife in bed with the butcher who has been supplying her with food in exchange for sex, but also Hans-Joachim Möbis as the naïve student who falls in love with a French girl, and Claus Clausen as the lieutenant who has a mental breakdown under the strain of combat. With its home front scenes, Pabst's has that undeniable depth of feeling that can only come from an awareness of what that disastrous war did to the country in which the actors and filmmakers lived. Three years after Westfront 1918 was released, to a good deal of controversy about its treatment of the war as folly, it was suppressed by the newly emergent National Socialist regime as deleterious to morale. Pabst's film concluded with the word "Ende?!" which in itself qualifies as prophetic.

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