Wednesday, October 2, 2013
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) (Silent Version)
The period from 1927 to 1930 is one of the most interesting in film history. Beginning with the debut of The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length film with synchronized talking sequences, it saw the swift and almost complete obliteration of silent film as a popular moviemaking form. Even those of us who love silent film must admit this was inevitable. But there was certainly never a ‘clean break’ from the silent to sound eras. Into the 1930s, in many parts of the world, theatres still weren’t wired for sound. And of course, people in many parts of the world couldn’t understand English if they heard it. If one produced a full-talkie that one wished to have seen in many nations, one had to decide how to approach that situation.
And so it was that director Lewis Milestone made All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the finest silent films of all time—and one very few people know exists, because the sound version of it is so famous.
That sound version went on to capture Best Picture (then called “Outstanding Production”) at the 3rd Academy Awards, and it is still celebrated. But now Milestone’s silent version, which is visually mostly the same as the talkie, but not quite, is now available on Blu-ray for all to see. I think it’s better, and I’m not alone.
Based on the 1929 book by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front follows a band of young students from their schoolhouse in a German village to the training camps, trenches, and graveyards of World War One. The film stars Lew Ayres as Paul Baumer, one of the students; and Louis Volheim as the grizzled sergeant in charge of keeping them alive. It is unflinchingly pacifist. “There’s only one thing worse than dying out there—” says Paul, late in the film, “—and that’s living out there.”
The “silent” version of All Quiet on the Western Front—which is an example of an ‘International Sound Version’ and a product of the Western Electric Sound System—includes little music in its soundtrack, but a lot of crowd noise and crucially, gunfire. This had to be: the battle scenes in the film, for reasons I’ll go on to describe, simply could not be supported by a pianist, no matter how gifted. It’s also a bit of a relief, since the spoken dialogue in the sound version tends to be mannered and preachy.
The replacement of a lot of talking with relatively few intertitles does nothing to muddle the film’s storytelling. If anything, it tightens it up. Because All Quiet on the Western Front’s message is really delivered through its visuals: something silence allows to be contemplated and more thoroughly by the viewer. Not that this is a peaceful experience. Often—and this is especially true of the silent version—it is horrifying.
It is established at the beginning of the film that Paul and his friends are innocents. Though they are different men, they are all equally vulnerable to the pulpit-pounding rhetoric of their schoolmaster, an old man for whom there can be no greater glory than shedding blood (your enemy’s or your own) for the Fatherland. We first see him lecturing his students from the front of the classroom: the blackboard behind him and two tall windows on either side. Through these windows we see the industry of the village, redirected to matters of war. The effect of this scene is to create a triptych, of the type one would see in a church.
Paul looks like he belongs in a church. Ayres, only 22 in 1930, has a lineless, angelic face. It’s an often serious one, often thoughtful, but never worn. And it never really changes, through all the gruesomeness to come. Paul will grow weary from the war, become mentally beaten and physically damaged, but his face retains its purity, like a delicate ceramic, smeared with dirt, but uncracked.
These are kids, we can’t deny it. In an early scene in their barracks, far from the Western Front, they tussle and boast about their adventures to come. Two of them hunker down on a cot with the blankets bundled in front of them, foreshadowing the postures they’ll take in the trenches. But they can’t even imagine that yet. Who could? Their drill sergeant, formerly their mailman, warns them: “Forget everything you’ve learned, what you’ve been, and what you are—you’re just soldiers, and that’s all!” He says this to bully them, but it proves to be true.
What’s coming for Paul and his friends is made clear about 45 minutes in. It is a battle: a very long one at eight minutes onscreen, and for my money, still the best ever filmed. In this scene, Milestone and his cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, deliver the truth of war, both literally and figuratively. Literally, because it is terrifying, relentless and gory; figuratively because it is artful, conveying the theme of dehumanization at the movie’s core.
You’ll never forget it. The young men: poised, frightened, at the tip of their trench. The enemy: boys like them, charging across No Man’s Land toward them—and toward the machine-gun nests. The heart of the scene is these nests, which do not erupt with bullets the moment it begins, but wait and wait for the soldiers to get close, with Milestone cutting back to them again and again, like the ticks of a time-bomb. When the gunners do unleash, it’s a massacre. The camera sweeps across a row of men falling like dominoes—already Milestone has swept across rows of men like these, usually as they marched, or waited with their guns drawn. Now they die in similar order. And then a row of explosions fountains the soil. The men, the mines—all reduced to destroyers and destroyed.
The scene is relentless. Men cower or push ahead, dying equally. A bomb explodes, leaving a pair of hands hanging from barbed wire. And when the enemy reaches the German trench, it becomes a battle fit for the Middle Ages. Scrapping, stabbing, beating their foes to death with the flat head of a spade—indeed, Paul and his friends will not be the same. When the fighting is finally over, they pass a broken bottle of wine, one dry mouth to the next. A man pulls from a loaf of bread smeared with blood. It’s meant to be their sacrament, we understand. But they just seem hungry.
The impact of this scene, which is considerable, differs little between the silent and sound versions of All Quiet on the Western Front. There is almost no dialogue in either version of the scene, and the brutal sounds of the bombs and guns are present in both. But differences are more noticeable elsewhere.
One example is an early sequence in the “living quarters” beneath the trench. Trapped by shelling, unable to find food or water, and surrounded by rats, the war, and each other, the men begin to go stir-crazy. Several lose their wits. One begins to shriek. But in the silent version, this shrieking is part of the soundtrack. And so the effect is of a bug-eyed man mouthing his terror against a universal expression of that terror. It is not his voice (it may have been the actor’s but it doesn’t match his lips) and it is chilling to hear. This man will die, surely—and we almost feel as if something otherworldly demands that it be so.
The silence also gives us a better version of one of the film’s most meaningful scenes. Paul, thus far one of the lucky ones, goes to see his wounded friend in a military hospital. The friend, played by Ben Alexander, is in a very bad way. This sequence matters to the story because, up until now, Paul has only been shocked and frightened by war. By the time he leaves that bedside, he will be cynical, too. It is a subtle, but important turn.
And the sound-version of it frustrates me. The fault is with Ayres, who responds to Alexander’s intense and gripping delivery with verbal schmaltz. In fact, Ayres overacts throughout the film, something I’d hoped I wouldn’t notice in the silent version, but usually did. In this scene, though, the effect is muted. We lose some of Alexander’s performance, but also some of Ayres’, so it’s an even trade.
Paul Baumer isn’t one of early cinema’s great characters. He’s more cipher than protagonist—a man to whom things must happen. As a performer, Ayres is outclassed by several of his cast-mates, especially Wolheim, and silent comedy veteran Slim Summerville. But he is our way into this Great War. And once we’re in, it is Milestone’s intention that we never forget it. And we never will.
Where to find All Quiet on the Western Front:
I watched the silent version of All Quiet on the Western Front on Blu-ray, part of Universal’s “100th Anniversary Collector’s Series.” The disc also includes the sound-version and other materials. There is a DVD of the film packaged with the set as well.