Thursday, May 5, 2016

Westfront 1918

G. W. Pabst's scathing Westfront 1918 (1930) is companion to All Quiet on the Western Front, but more radically theoretical than the American film.  Indeed, the German movie is so uncompromising that it has never been popular.  Nonetheless, Westfrong 1918 is a powerful anti-war picture and, ultimately, more disturbing than Milestone's film because less sentimental.  It is not surprising that Westfront 1918 displeased just about everyone when it was released; Pabst's later film, the allegorical Kameradschaft (Comaraderie), a 1931 film based on an actual incident in which German miners dug a shaft across the international border to save French workers trapped in a collapsed mine, although equally accomplished, has always been more popular because it has a message that viewers can readily endorse.  Westfront 1918 is so savagely nihilistic that it doesn't seem to have any message at all. 

Westfront 1918 is simple enough:  four German infantrymen serve in the trenches on the West Front.  One of them goes home on leave to find his wife, who has been starving, sleeping with the butcher from another flat in the apartment.  The soldier is exhausted.  He lies down in bed with his wife but won't let her touch him.  As he departs for the front, his wife cries out:  "Can't you say something nice to me?"  The weary soldier pauses, but does not respond.  Returning the Front, the soldier learns that his friend, the "Student", has been killed and that his corpse is rotting in a nearby shell-hole.  The soldier and his surviving two buddies volunteer for a forward mission and find themselves in the vanguard of an attack.  All three men are badly wounded and the film ends in a chaotic field hospital where the dying soldiers are abandoned to perish.  As he dies, the soldier with erring wife imagines her anguished face: again, she cries:  "What can't you say something nice to me?" and, then, something like:  "You must forgive me -- it's not my fault."  Before the final fade-to-black, the fatally wounded soldier whispers:  "No one is at fault."  Of course, this conclusion -- that no one was at fault for the war and the suffering that it produced did not endear Pabst to his colleagues on the Left in the German film industry.  Pabst was later to make a powerfully cynical version of Brecht's Three-penny Opera and, of course, like most German directors in the Weimar period was aligned with the Communists.  The soldier's dying declaration that "no one is at fault" didn't please those like Rosa Luxemburg who declared that the War was caused by Capitalism and, in fact, was diagnostic of the economic malaise that Communism was supposed to correct.  Similarly, Pabst's refusal to ascribe fault didn't sit well with the German right-wing who blamed the defeat of their army and the later collapse of the economy on a sinister cabal of Jewish and Leftist conspirators.  Attacked from both sides, Westfront 1918 was subsequently, more or less, ignored.

But Pabst was a great film maker and Westfront 1918 deserves more attention.  The picture was Pabst's first sound film and it contains several bizarre, documentary-like sequences intended to showcase the new technology.  One extended scene involves a series of vaudeville-like performances for an audience of front-line soldiers -- there is a can-can dancer, several clowns playing comically tiny instruments, and, then, an orchestral interlude.   Although this sequence is clearly a demonstration of the new Ton film's technical capabilities, the sheer weirdness of the performances and their odd non sequitur irrelevance to the savagery of the combat disorients the audience -- what is this all about?  The battle scenes are designed to dramatize a very particular and important point:  the combat soldiers are completely helpless and have no agency -- they are victims, in the purest sense, of deadly forces over which they have no control.  In the opening, the four protagonist are almost killed when their position is shelled by friendly fire.  A friendly looking dog, a version of Rin-tin-tin, is sent with a message that the artillery needs to correct their aim -- but the dog ends up mangled in a shell-hole.  One of the protagonist carries the message, but when he reaches HQ, it seems, that the shelling has petered-out anyway and his message that he delivers is meaningless. (The film's title forcefully reminds us that all the suffering that we see is entirely futile -- the war is lost.)  The last third of the film is an extended battle scene staged to emphasize chaos and confusion.  Someone is picking nits and singing a tune to his buddy when a bunch of men wearing slightly different helmets appears out of the corner of the frame -- people start falling over and the trench fills with smoke.  Apparently, French troops have somehow invaded the trench although we are just as surprised as the Germans by their inexplicable appearance.  Pabst edits all the combat scenes to avoid imputing any active agency to any of the hundreds of troops that he shows.  In most war films, we see someone firing their gun and, then, the film cuts to an enemy soldier falling down.  In All Quiet on the Western Front, the camera is placed behind a machine-gun so we see the bullets knocking down swathes of attacking soldiers.  If someone throws a grenade, the film is edited to show the effect of the grenade.  Pabst refuses to edit his film in any cause and effect pattern.  We see men wildly pitching grenades in all directions but don't ever see the bombs explode -- the only exception is when someone tells a hapless soldier who has been throwing grenades that are not charged to "pull the pin;" the man does this, gets shot, and the grenade blows up in his own trench knocking down a half-dozen nearby soldiers.  We see troops firing but have no sense that their bullets are hitting anyone.  Pabst doesn't use flashy montage-cutting to amp-up the excitement -- in fact, several shots are completely, and daringly, static:  the camera simply surveys waves of men running forward and dying as they are knocked over by explosions and machine-gun fire.  The battle-scenes are not designed to have a front or back -- there is no sense of directionality in the attack sequences.  Groups of soldiers enter the frame from unanticipated directions -- the explosions and gunfire that cut them down seem to come from all sides at once.  In one scene, a group of soldiers lunges into a pit where enemies are hunkered down -- but before we see any hand-to-hand combat, Pabst just cuts away.  Panoramas of the battlefield that we would like to observe as a spectacle are invisible due to whirling clouds of smoke -- attacks vanish as the figures simply wander off-camera or are hidden by mists of poison gas.  Pabst shows soldiers with enormous glaring eyes gazing out at us in utter terror.  The gung-ho commanding officer goes mad and has to be dragged off the battlefield.  The field hospital is crowded to overflowing with screaming men, shell-shocked soldiers gibbering in corners, blinded men begging to be killed, and doctors who seem on the verge of nervous breakdown.  The home-front isn't much better -- people stand in long queues for food that is invariably sold out before everyone can be fed.  A fat man like a figure out of a George Grosz cartoon berates a soldier on the street.  The hero's mother sees her boy returned from the front but is unable to leave the food line to greet him -- she silently lets him pass by on his way to discover his unfaithful wife.  The butcher caught in flagrante delicto with the soldier's wife is a mealy-looking little man who has been exchanging meat for sex is palpably terrified by the fact that he has been conscripted and will have to report to the army the next morning.  At the front, the soldiers' keep a mistress, a French girl who they all seem to periodically rape -- the girl doesn't seem to mind since the Germans feed her.  She falls in love with the student but, of course, he is killed and left to rot in a water-logged shell crater.  The hovel where she is lives with the Germans billeted with her is shelled and we last see her as a refugee, departing the ruined village with a single piece of luggage.  Dying soldiers glare at the camera like figures in a painting by Otto Dix.  In a moment that foreshadows Kameradschaft, a mortally wounded Frenchman who is begging for water, and ignored, reaches out to take the hand of a dead German.  The film concludes with a stark handwritten title:  Ende?!  

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