François Truffaut once remarked even pacifist war films turn out pro-war because the battle scenes invariably prove the most exciting, undoing the intended message. He may have had in mind Lewis Milestone’s stilted, poetical All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which comes to life only in its spectacular tracking shots of combat, with rows of soldiers being mowed down—scenes whose aestheticism robs them of any sense of lost human lives. But had Truffaut seen G. W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918?
Based on Ernst Johannsen’s novel Four from the Infantry, this account of four World War I soldiers, all of whom are eventually killed, is gray, unremitting, naturalistic, disturbing. The visual, aural and emotional tonalities of Pabst’s first sound film coincide: dirt, artillery fire and explosions, claustrophobic trenches, monotony, madness, sudden death. At the original showing, patrons fainted at the sights and sounds of such realism on screen in portraying war. No conventional battle “excitement,” sentimentality or aestheticism allowed the film to loosen its grip.
Pabst’s long penultimate movement is in battle. At least twice Pabst fixes the camera and keeps it fixed, making us more eyewitnesses than film viewers. In one of these remarkable shots, a soldier falls to his death early on in the foreground while combatants rush across a field in the background, competing for our attention with only intermittent success. Stuck on the original anonymous corpse, we are frozen in horror.
The final passage is in a field hospital, a makeshift place of surgeries and insanity as soldiers bemoan the loss of sight, the loss of limbs; and, before our very eyes, one of the boys we’ve been following turns into a corpse, his mouth and the hollows of his eyes overtaken by darkness as in a grave: Pabst’s single, brilliant stroke of expressionism.
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