You ain't heard nothing yet
That All Quiet on the Western Front remains a functional piece of synchronized sound cinema is impressive. It came only three years after The Jazz Singer forced studios to use the technically taxing sound recording process if they wanted to score a hit. (See the recent Babylon for a terrific depiction of the stifling effect this had on the art form.) Given how few sync sound features from 1927-1930 endure as watchable specimens of the medium, this film is something of an anomaly: It feels and sounds recognizably cinematic.
That All Quiet on the Western Front remains a masterpiece of sound design, though, is one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of cinema. This film took an emerging technology and demonstrated in fully-formed technique how it could be not just a novelty or a bolted-on addition, but a crucial and central item in the artistic toolkit of filmmakers.
The sound in this film is astonishing, especially the battle scenes. For the first time ever, the movies capture the cacophony of the battlefield in all its sensorial terror. Seeing violence is one thing; hearing it is an entirely new visceral experience. In 2022 terms, the film feels slightly restrained and selective: every boom of a shell or scream of a mortar or whizz of a bullet feels specifically chosen to increase the overpowering sense of danger. But in the historical context, it is a vast and maximal soundscape, filled with a relentless barrage of noises we can only sometimes see (but always feel). One incredible scene shows a soldier going crazy from the encroaching sounds of war, and it only works because the movie makes the audience feel just as trapped and overwhelmed as the young men in the trenches.
As central as sound is to the movie both as its key innovation and its unique presentation element, the rest of the production is really outstanding as well. The direction by Lewis Milestone is superb. It has some of the visual fluidity I associate with late silents — the depth of focus sometimes shifts multiple times in a single shot, the camera soaring and swooping and panning. The effects during the battle sequences are really special for the era: Lots of dirt and debris flying through the air and rattling explosions. The battle charges, in particular, have grace and power.
If you’ve watched a war movie since 1930, then you are well acquainted with the cinematic DNA of All Quiet on the Western Front. This is both because of the long shadow of its production innovations (Saving Private Ryan is basically the peak evolution of battle-as-noisy chaos film aesthetic introduced here) and because of its ironclad narrative structure as an anti-war film whose arc and beats have been repeated ad nauseum in the years since.
The film opens with a group of German boys near the start of World War 1, including Paul (Lew Ayres), our main lens into the action, getting whipped into patriotic frenzy by their school teacher and enrolling in the army with visions of glory and heroism. They find basic training to be grueling and dull, but before they know it they’re facing brutal violence. One by one they suffer horrible fates, and those who survive come to realize the inhumanity and pointlessness of war. When Paul returns home after an injury, he feels even more isolated — his family and friends can’t comprehend the horrors he’s seen, and he knows the only people who understand his angst are back in the trenches. When he hits the front line again, his last shred of dignity and innocence is on the line, perhaps symbolic of the last twinkle of western imperial prosperity — and since it’s an anti-war film, I think you can guess how it ends.
It’s a terrifically structured screenplay, sprinkling in recurrent reminders of the humanity of its ensemble with vignettes between battles. There’s enough shading and specificity to the characters so that they feel human and their deaths have an impact; but not so much that you would ever come close to calling this a “character drama.” The entire, surprisingly long film presents a very direct and clear arc — there’s nothing non-linear to it, and its observations about the cyclic nature of war are methodically earned.
The weak point of the movie is any scene built around extended dialogue. I’m not sure if it’s a byproduct of the challenges of recording voices or just a lull in Milestone’s direction, but they feel a bit more stilted and bland — even stagey — compared to the rest of the movie. There’s one scene where Paul feels remorse at killing a French soldier that practically plays as a Shakespearean soliloquy: it’s a heartbreaking moment and piece of writing, but hugely disruptive of the movie’s flow.
It’s also quite jarring that these are supposedly German soldiers, but they all have “aw-shucks” American accents and very little to mark them as German (other than the unmissable spike helmets). Not only is the national agnosticism of its characters pretty clearly intentional — but the very matter is lampshaded: There’s a great scene near the middle of the film where the soldiers debate what they even have against the fellow soldiers from other countries that are probably just like them.
Nearly a century later, All Quiet on the Western Front still leaves a huge impact. Its outstanding production and storytelling both endure. It was the third Best Picture winner (back when it was titled Outstanding Production), and the first to win both that award and Best Director. In a few weeks, at the 95th ceremony, a German film of the same name, re-adapting the source novel, will compete for Best Picture and will most likely win Best International Feature Film. The story and the message are still relevant. War never changes.