All Quiet on the Western Front follows the life of a young man named Paul, who joins the German army after his professor’s description of glory and patriotism whip his class into a frenzy. When Paul and his classmates arrive for training, they are full of life and optimism, but it is slowly stomped out of them. The audience watches as one by one, Paul’s friends lose their lives, appendages and minds to the war. The students experience starvation, shell shock and claustrophobia as day after day they brave trenches or hide out in shelters. They reveal their worst traits when, out of desperation one soldier begs another who has just had his leg amputated to let him have his boots. Paul himself survives the war long enough to go on leave, but when he returns home, he is disgusted by what he sees.
Old men sit at tables, discussing the war as if they know what it is like. When he tries to tell them that war – up close – is different from the way they imagine it, they speak to him condescendingly and act as if the know better than he, though none of them have been to the front. He becomes even angrier when he stops in to see his old professor – the one who convinced him to go to war. The professor is urging boys even younger than he and his friends were to go to the front. He asks Paul to speak to them about the war, but when Paul paints a realistic picture of what the situation on the western front is like, his professor is disappointed. The boys, who have never seen battle, call him a coward. He is so disgusted by the behaviour of his hometown that he returns to war. There, his old friend and mentor dies beside him. Eventually, Paul himself is killed as he stretches his hand out to touch a butterfly and a sniper shoots him.
The main theme of the film is that while war may seem glorious and moral on the surface, it is bleak, long and ruinous in reality. Instead of bringing honor to the men who fight it, it destroys their innocence and their lives. The scene in which Paul reaches for the butterfly seems to represent this destruction of life and innocence.
The film explores several different moral issues. In one of the most memorable scenes, Paul stabs an enemy solider to death when the other man lands in the same trench. He ends up being stuck with the body for a long period of time. Looking at the body, he realizes that the man does not differ very much from him. He too is fighting to defend his country. He, too, has a family. Paul has no real desire to kill the man and he begs for his forgiveness. He swears to make it right. This scene makes the audience question the morality of warfare. Is it right to kill a man who is as innocent as you are, just to defend one’s country? The film also explores generational issues. It leaves the audience wondering if it is right for men and women who have not been to war themselves to encourage their sons to risk their lives in horrible conditions.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a particularly effective film, in part, because of its realism. It is full of so much violence that the viewer cannot help but flinch. Soldiers fall as bullets strike them in their guts. Often, men let out unearthly screams. In one memorable instance, one man is blinded when a bomb falls near him. His screams as he realizes that his eyes no longer work are bloodcurdling. The sets, too, are realistic. Soldiers sloshing through mud, falling up against barbed wire and trudging through forests give the audience a good idea of how hard marches were for the soldiers of World War I. The costumes, too, are realistic, and they help the audience believe that the actors truly are soldiers in the First World War. The fact that the film was shot and shown in black and white also transports the viewer back to the past. Although there is little music throughout the film, the music that is there helps set the mood in important scenes. In the beginning, a big brass band plays merry music, helping the audience catch the students’ excitement as they enlist in the army.
The film’s cinematography and special effects are impressive. The bombing scenes, which show smoke rising and dirt blasted upward as soldiers run past seem real. The viewer feels as if he (or she) is really looking upon a violent battle. All Quiet on the Western Front is a valuable film, both because of the artistic statements it makes and because of its implications for morality and the humanities.