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At its Berlin premiere on May 23, 1930, some moviegoers supposedly found Westfront 1918's realism so shocking that they fainted in their seats. A New York Times reporter at the screening called the picture "the most vivid argument yet contrived against war. A book or a speech are cold, dead things beside it." These were powerful effects from a powerful film - so much so, in fact, that in 1933 it was one of two dozen movies suppressed by the Nazi party when they came to power.
German director G.W. Pabst's first talkie, Westfront 1918 follows four German soldiers of varying backgrounds who are sent to the French front towards the end of WWI, when the war's outcome is in little doubt and the continuation of combat seems futile and senseless. The view of war here is stark, raw, and totally unromantic, qualities reflected not just in the barren landscapes but also in the film's narrative structure. It's made up of loose episodes rather than a straightforward, linear plot progression, and violence is not exciting, heroic or narratively "satisfying" in the traditional sense.
1930, of course, was also the year that an Oscar®-winning, anti-war American film dealing with WWI was released: All Quiet on the Western Front. The two films are remarkably similar, from their titles, plots, settings and themes to their amazingly virtuoso filmmaking techniques. Westfront 1918, however, is the more pessimistic of the two, delving into the German homefront in scenes that paint a picture of a corrupt, bitter society which is in serious economic disrepair. As film historian Robert Keser has put it, these sequences illustrates that "the homefront offers no escape from the anxieties of the front lines."
Pabst was one of the architects of modern cinema and Westfront 1918 is a major achievement alongside his better-known The Joyless Street (1925), Pandora's Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). The technical craftsmanship of Westfront 1918 is impressive. Pabst and his cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner (who also shot Nosferatu, 1922 and M, 1931), created a stunning lighting design both realistic and expressive, and the camerawork is full of long, fluid tracking shots. Such advanced camerawork was not that unusual at the end of the silent era, but it was unusual in the first talkies, when the technical challenges posed by the new sound recording technology often resulted in stagy, stilted films. Even more unusual was the surprisingly sophisticated use of sound for such an early talkie, with expressive sound effects conveying the horror of war.
Cast member Gustav Diessl was an actual prisoner of war for a year during WWI and turns in an especially believable performance as one of the soldiers. Westfront 1918 and All Quiet on the Western Front each opened in their home country six months before the other film, and it was the first release in each case that caused the sensation among the public and film community.
Producer: Seymour Nebenzal
Director: G.W. Pabst
Screenplay: Peter Martin Lampel, Ladislaus Vajda
Cinematography: Charles Metain, Fritz Arno Wagner
Film Editing: Marc Sorkin
Art Direction: Erno Metzner
Music: Alexander Laszlo
Cast: Gustav Diessl (Karl), Fritz Kampers (The Bavarian), Hans-Joachim Moebis (The Student), Claus Clausen (The Lieutenant), Jackie Monnier (Jacqueline), Hanna Hoessrich (Karl's wife).
by Jeremy Arnold