Previously at the Wellington Film Society: encapsulating Erich Maria Remarque’s resonant anti-war message.
Erich Maria Remarque was arguably one of the establishment’s most hated literary figures of the 20th Century. Badly wounded in World War One, his life and work was shaped by his experience as a soldier. His books were burned in Joseph Goebbels’s infamous “bonfire of the vanities” and his reputation trashed by Nazis (including having had his citizenship revoked). His sister was arrested, and beheaded, for “expressing dissent” against the Nazis. The reaction to his books captures the real bite of his work: soldiers who futilely thought they were dying for something greater than them, whereas their leaders, the ones with the power, were simply relying on using that futility as glory for them.
His work led to one of the most celebrated early Hollywood films, and a relatively ignored but magnificent Douglas Sirk film. Both films told of a recently completed conflagration—Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) made twelve years after World War One’s armistice, and A Time To Love and A Time To Die (1958), a Hollywood tale of Nazis made only 13 years after the end of World War Two.
Despite its controversy and proximity to World War One, All Quiet on the Western Front (the novel) was hailed as a pacifist triumph once it was finally accepted for publishing. It was released around a heightened sense of pacifism—the Kellogg-Briand pact was signed a year earlier by over 50 countries renouncing war, while anti-war literature was “a thing.” But it wasn’t as if the film had an easy ride with the authorities. Remarkably, for all of the devastation caused in New Zealand by World War One, the 1930 film was rejected by New Zealand censors for being “anti-war propaganda.” Only after being cut was it shown here. It was banned in Australia for 12 years, France for 20, Italy for 25, and Austria for nearly 50.
It’s hard not to see why it had a visceral effect. It’s still a remarkably raw film. Made early in the sound era, when recording was still relatively rudimentary, All Quiet on the Western Front is notable for its roving camerawork (almost Murnau-ian, rare when microphones were still getting used to), incredibly pessimistic tone, and strident political viewpoint. It captures the tale of soldiers who believed the lie of dulce et decorum est, and who encounter brutal encounter after one another. Pointed imagery highlight the lies being peddled: soldiers march off in the background while a teacher tells his enraptured students that they don’t have to fight, but wouldn’t it be nice to save the Fatherland? The scene mirrors a later scene where Paul (played by Lew Ayres) returns back to his school to see his teacher spouting the same lies.
The war scenes are heightened by the film’s focus on characterisation and slide from hope to disillusionment. The characters do awful things, but ultimately they’re way out of their depth in dealing with the circumstances. The scenes involving amputation and the dying French soldier were unflinching in capturing human reactions to awful events, while the brutal ending underlines the pointlessness of it all.
The film was a major success, winning both Best Film and Best Director in 1930. Spielberg cited it as a key reference for Saving Private Ryan, a far more apolitical and ultimately less resonant film. Its reputation then and now has not necessarily been fixed. It recently slid out of the AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list when it was reassessed in 2007. Lew Ayres was so moved by his character that he registered as a conscientious objector during World War Two. His acting contract was dropped. And in a classic example of war and power, he became a hero by serving as a medic in World War Two. He got his acting contract back.
Despite the treatment by his homeland, Remarque’s 1954 novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die attempted to humanise the German soldiers who were caught up in the war. Similarly, Douglas Sirk, who fled Nazi Europe with his Jewish wife, had little reason to use such source material. It does seem remarkable that the film was made by a Hollywood studio, just over a decade after the full discovery of the Holocaust (taking into account Hollywood’s own anti-Semitism) and the close of the brutal war. The film touches on personal experiences, and features hiding Jewish characters, Elizabeth Kruse’s (Liselotte Pulver) father being held as a political prisoner (touching on Remarque’s sister’s experience), and indeed, Remarque himself. Unlike All Quiet on the Western Front, none of the soldiers are under any illusion of dulce et decorum est. This partly explains why the film simply disappeared from critical thought upon release (with the notable exception of the French).
Sirk’s film follows Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) as he returns home on furlough as his army retreats on the Eastern Front. The film was marketed as “All Quiet on the Eastern Front.” He expects to be acknowledged when he gets home, but finds that his parents have disappeared, and no one seems to care about how he has been going. He returns to outright cynicism and hostility (a strong contrast to All Quiet on the Western Front), not helped by continual Allied bombing raids. Graeber falls in love with Kruse, but knowing that his time to return to the Eastern Front is fast approaching, their love has a tragic inevitability to it. Meanwhile Graeber encounters the people doing ‘well’ out of the misery—an old high school friend who had risen up the ranks in the Nazi hierarchy and upper class snobs who party as if nothing was happening. Once again, war is good for those in power, it seems.
Sirk’s cynicism almost perfectly matches with Remarque’s humanism to create an extremely moving film. While Gavin is somewhat uninspiring for a Sirk lead, his performance captures both naivety and world-weariness. Hope and happiness is a strong possibility for Graeber and Kruse, but is constantly blocked by the reality of Sirk’s imagery. Gorgeous colours are contrasted with rubble. Decadence jars with loneliness. One underrated aspect in an underrated film is Sirk’s sound design—the bombing scenes are genuinely terrifying, told simply by the distant whirr of engines.
While All Quiet on the Western Front barely made any room for happiness, the cruelty of A Time to Love and a Time to Die is the illusion that happiness can exist in such an environment. A brief escape during a furlough is never going to be enough. But perhaps, most cynically, much like the tree that had prematurely gone into bloom from the heat of a bomb blast, were it not for the war, Sirk and Remarque suggest that love would not have occurred. These two films capture a sense of why Remarque’s critiques of war were so notable and controversial: they simply underline the sheer uselessness of it all.