Here we have a German produced World War 1 film from 1930 that I had never even heard of until a few months back, when I noticed it was a part of the Criterion Collection (they officially released it early 2018, I guess on the 100th anniversary of the tail end of the Great War -- which is insane). World War I has always been a bit underrepresented (or over represented, depending on your perspective) in film. We've got the great, American produced, All Quiet on the Western Front, based on a book written by a German veteran, which also came out in 1930. And then...nothing...for years. Nothing that mattered or, I guess stood the test of time is a better way to put that. There's Kubrick's masterpiece, Paths of Glory, which came out over a quarter of a century later. As for modern, post MPAA films those are few and far between, and almost all of those use the war as a backdrop to other things There's War Horse (backdrop to a horse's life), Legends of the Fall (backdrop to Brad Pitt's flowing locks), and....Legend of Bagger Vance (backdrop to.....shit, I didn't see it).
The problem is, World War I isn't very cinematic. I mean, sure, trench warfare which, for the last year or so of the war was almost exclusively the mode of fighting, is inherently terrifying. The problem is these guys weren't moving around much. They were dug in, stationary for days, weeks, months. They waited...and waited through shellings, gas attacks, etc. I'm not even sure, based on any of the movies I've seen (or what little I've read) what the strategy was beyond trying to stay alive and wait out the enemy. So, I guess this is all cinematic in the way an extreme horror picture can be cinematic. There is tension, there is gore...but also this is the real shit, which does not exactly make for a pleasant afternoon at the picture show.
So, against all this, we have a picture, a bleak as shit picture, that focuses on a group of German Infantrymen, Western Front, last year of the war, dug in, running out of supplies, trying to survive...if no longer seriously trying to win the war. There's Karl, the German soldier longing after his wife, back home. There's the student, who lusts for a French girl, Jacqueline, who happens to live close enough to the Front for him to visit. Then there's this guy, caught ooh-la-la-la'ing the student and the French peasant. I'm not sure he'd be able to pull off this look after 1945:
There's also the Bavarian (big burly soldier) and the lieutenant, who in one of the most effective and terrifying scenes of the picture become trapped in their living quarters as the dirt caves in around them.
This is an incredible picture, every bit the equal to All Quiet and possibly, more powerful in its aversion to sentimentality. The melodrama is toned down here as the picture mostly focuses on the men in the field although Karl's sojourn home (he flees the lines and is eventually able to return to them) almost results in a terrible domestic murder after he finds his wife in bed with the butcher's boy (the war has taken it's toll on those away from the lines as well; widespread starvation has forced those left behind to engage in some untoward activities -- like sleeping with the butcher's boy, for example).
Probably the weirdest part of the picture is when the French villagers perform for the dug in soldiers by singing about blooming daisies (allusion to the peasant girls that the German soldier's -- in particular the student -- pine after). Then the guy with the violin and the clown come out and everyone shuts the fuck up, it's like an Abbot and Costello routine. There are a couple of scenes that mercifully, take you out of the battle because when you do get back, that shit is unrelenting.
These are real soldiers, grunts. They swear (yes, not an American production so "shit" or "scheisse" get thrown around), they fuck (or, let's be honest here, commit rape, mercifully-again that word-, offscreen). The battle scenes, like in All Quiet, are terrific, and terrifying. It's impossible to tell one infantrymen or, more precisely, Germany's infantrymen from the French infantrymen once the shells and artillery start to unload and guys are running and diving in all directions. At one point, the student engages in hand-to-hand with a French soldier and they both plummet into a flooded trench. This calls to mind the scene in All Quiet where Paul finds himself stuck in a trench with a wounded French soldier, who will not die. The stark, horrific poeticism of that scene is contrasted here with a struggle that is not shown onscreen. All we know is the student is stuck in that submerged trench, wounded or not, shell shocked for sure, calling out for help that will not come. The picture does not linger on his struggle. Nothing is explained beyond this is war...and it really sucks.
Predictably, once the Nazi's came into power this film was banned in Germany as unpatriotic, pacifist bullshit. Of course they banned it. I'm of the mindset that the only anti-war films are the World War I films. We rarely see the brass directing troops in open fields, no missions to blow up bridges, or kill some Nazi's in the Eagles Nest. The closest thing to a mission in this film is when a runner is sent to alert his own forces to stop shelling their own troops. There's no heroism (well, not movie heroism, anyway. Just by being here these guys are heroic) and hell, certainly no jingoism. This movie is as sympathetic to the plight of the French (mainly the villagers) as it is to the Germans. There's no room in these trenches for John Wayne. This is, simply put, the must-see war film, nay (War Horse reference) film, of 2018 since I'd imagine we'd all be seeing it for the first time. If you like your war films bleak as all hell and depicting a miserable mud soaked existence, then look no further.