I needed a day off yesterday, and I went to see the one performance of the new German film version of All Quiet on the Western Front at one of our three surviving local arthouses. It was 2:00 PM and there were about eight patrons in the audience. I still have the paperback of the original book that I bought in college for $.50 [sic] on my shelf, and I remembered much of it vividly. I have of course seen the earlier film version but I remember it less well. This film recreates the combat of the First World War with reasonable accuracy, but it failed completely, in my opinion, to capture the spirit of the book or the generation to which the author Erich Maria Remarque, himself a veteran, belonged. Warning: I can't write this analysis without a lot of spoilers about both the book and movie.
The Paul Baumer who narrates the book joined, apparently, right of high school, but he seems to have joined quite early in the four-year war, when enthusiasm had swept Germany and grown with big early successes on both the western and eastern fronts. By the time the book begins in 1917 or 1918 he is a seasoned veteran who speaks with the authority of having seen everything, including the deaths of many of his friends. He and his fellow soldiers have become masters of their craft, knowing how to find cover behind a one-foot rise in the ground, to distinguish various different types of shells and to use all their weapons with maximum effectiveness. Their superiors alternate their time in the trenches with more relaxing weeks in the rear area, when they eat, drink, smoke, and one one occasion, arrange an assignation with some French girls--an incident left entirely out of the movie. The movie delays Baumer's enlistment until the last year of the war, and he never seems to lose his innocence, which in the book did not even survive rigorous boot camp. He has the frightened, traumatized look that the Baumer of the book identifies in new, undertrained recruits, most of whom fall in battle almost at once.
The film's writer and director Edward Berger, it turns out, is 52, but I think the change in tone from the book reflects the sensibilities of today's younger generation both in Germany and elsewhere. Very few of them have known war first hand and they probably know little military history. They cannot imagine battle as anything but a traumatizing catastrophe. Don't get me wrong--battle is a traumatizing catastrophe, but soldiers only get through war by finding ways to cope--led by black humor and camaraderie.
The film also attempts to incorporate high-level history, but winds up using it to cheapen the basic plot. It includes scenes of the armistice talks between a civilian-led German delegation and allied Supreme Commander Marshal Foch, and a right-wing German general who appears to be based on Erich Ludendorff, even though he is a battlefield commander whereas Ludendorff had effectively ruled at German Army headquarters and had in fact been dismissed by the Emperor more than two weeks before the end of the war. This anonymous general becomes the cause of hero Paul Baumer's death. In the book, Baumer dies randomly and anonymously like so many of his fellows, with a few weeks left in the war. Berger insists on making him literally the last casualty of the conflict, killed at the exact moment the armistice took effect because the aforementioned general insisted on a last-minute attack to salvage German honor. I have been reading about this war for more than half a century and I have never heard of such a German attack. In a further historical inaccuracy, the film's closing credits inform us that from the time the western front first stabilized in 1914, it hardly moved at all. That was largely though not entirely true until March 1918, but from then until November--roughly the period covered by the movie--the opposite was true. First, Ludendorff's last great offensive brought the Germans nearly in sight of Paris again by July. Then, beginning in early August, an allied counteroffensive made dramatic gains as the German Army began to collapse, leading to the armistice negotiations that began in late September.
It was my own generation--including most, though not all, of my own generation of historians--that decided, in effect, that the past need not be taken seriously, since it was simply a record of the evil follies of the ruling class. It had been taken very seriously in western civilization since the French and American Revolutions because most (including even many Marxists) saw it as a story of human progress. Such a view gave historians the incentive to get it right. Now, as James Sweet wrote some weeks ago as president of the AHA before pressure forced him to recant, history has become the slave of present-day sensibility and present-day politics. Bad politics breed bad history.