This September 11, I'm afraid my mind is more on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of World War I than the tragic events of thirteen years ago. Though I was born many years after the guns were silenced, somehow the First World War seems far more painful to me than that more recent atrocity. Perhaps because it destroyed so many more lives and really did change things forever.
World War I, or The Great War, was the first truly modern, industrialized conflict and I've just watched two films that I believe are unsurpassed in showing the tragedy of the men who were caught in that terrible machine. Because one film is told from the French side and the other from the German, it’s possible to imagine that you’re seeing the same battles, just from different viewpoints. And because both were made less than fifteen years after the war’s end, their incidents and historical details seem more authentic and immediate than later, still worthy, attempts.
Both All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Les Croix de Bois (The Wooden Crosses, 1931) tell similar stories with a young, idealistic recruit at the center of the tale who we follow as he loses first his innocence and then his ideals and finally his life.[i] Similar events, rites of passage and, finally, fates await both young men. Lastly, both films are based on novels written by combat veterans of the Great War. Though both authors survived, as Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, writes,
"This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war." [ii]
Unlike Les Croix de Bois , which was made in France and in French, All Quiet on the Western Front was made in Hollywood, and in English. All Quiet’s American production is not surprising. Though initially a critical and publishing success in Germany, with the rise of the Nazis, both the book and the film were banned as defeatist. Not surprisingly, though trying hard for gritty realism, some of the familiar Hollywood polish is still evident in the big budget look of thousands of extras, lavish sets, and beautiful cinematography.
By contrast Les Croix, while still epic, often feels like a documentary and is entirely without sentimentality. Both films, especially their long and exhausting battle sequences, will leave you feeling drained and numb, with a combination of awe and pity for those who fought wars on such a personal level.
For quite a long time after watching films like these, it’s impossible for me to view any of the countless other pictures today that treat violent death as entertainment, something to be stylized and choreographed.
This is the way I wish to pay tribute to the past; not through movies that glorify war, not through ceremonies or speeches, and certainly not through reenacting, which I believe the combat veterans who suffered through this or any other war would find inexplicable and perhaps insulting, but through the books and films that the “lost generation” created themselves.
A., B., and F., are from All Quiet on the Western Front.
D. German police blocking the entrance to a theater showing All Quiet on the Western Front c. 1931.
C., E., G., are from Les Croix de Bois
Les Croix de Bois http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022787/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
[ii] The original German title for All Quiet on the Western Front was Im Westen nichts Neues. Roland Dorgelès was the author of Les Croix de Bois.