All Not So Quiet

by I.A. Isherwood

‘You are the iron men of Germany,’ says Professor Kantorek. ‘To be foremost in battle is not a virtue to be despised … dulce et decorum est pro patria mori … here is the glorious beginning of your lives. The field of honor calls you!’ Kanorek continues his patriotic rant. His call to arms is responded to by the manic faces of students cheering the outbreak of war, their enthusiasm supposedly representative of the idealism felt by many young German boys as they went off to war in 1914. Kanorek’s students even cross out the day’s lesson from the blackboard and write ‘Nach Paris’ over it. The symbolism is obvious; youth, learning, boyhood was being left behind. The classroom would be replaced by the battlefield. What drives Erich Remarque’s classic tale (and the 1930 film version my students watched) is the notion of generational destruction. The contrast in the novel between idealism and innocence on one side and reality and disillusionment on the other is painfully overt in the book. This is perhaps why the book was so accessible when it was written: you didn’t have to have been in the First World War to know that it was a cataclysmic event that destroyed much hope and many lives. Remarque was only writing what many had witnessed either participants or as civilians seeing men and women who returned changed beings.

Movie Poster for All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Wikipedia Commons.

(Note: I was more receptive to Remarque’s message when I was seventeen than now, twenty years later, in part, because I think that his message is too overt and too well constructed in its disillusionment. Remarque’s mind was pretty made up on the war and his book is polemical tragedy. Compare it to Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We. Manning’s work is a masterpiece of ambiguity: no high political messaging, no sweeping generational message, just a grim and grimy war fought by real people who talk to each other like comrades and not like soldier composites. Manning says a lot indirectly and I prefer his account to that of Remarque, but that’s just one person’s preference.)

Yesterday we contrasted the 1930 film version of All Quiet with Storm of Steel, or the tale of Paul Bäumer and that of Ernst Jünger. The conversation was difficult. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t slow, but it was intellectually a bit all over the place (in a good way). Here are some themes:

  • Cinema in 1930 and cinema today. With this came the notion of cultural sensitivity to violence and how people in the 1930s viewed representations of war compared to how people now view war films. We tried to imagine what it would be like to see a film like this in 1930, when sound films were relatively new, and All Quiet was unquestionably an epic film with harrowing battle scenes. These seem quaint to audiences now, but at the time, must have been very shocking, a sensory experience unlike that ever seen before.
  • Veterans, soldier universalism, and the film. Did veterans connect with the film? Did they dispute it? Did they see the film in terms of nationality or was it reflective more of a type of soldier universalism developing in the late 1920s (the ‘we were all pawns in the same game’ school of thought)? The question of universalism led to a very spirited discussion. Did people want to see a film about a universal soldier experience or were they watching the film (and reading the novel) because it depicted a specific experience: that of a disillusioned German soldier. We discussed the idea that soldier universalism, though a sentiment felt by some during the war, was a much more prominent idea later in the 1920s as peace proved disappointing. This led naturally to questions of national war memories and we tied Junger into the conversation comparing Storm of Steel to All Quiet and then discussing the emergence of fascism in the 1930s. It was a very interesting conversation – I am still trying to get my head around it.
  • We then discussed victimization and heroism in WWI narratives. At the moment, I am thinking of these concepts because I am writing a book wrestling with these themes. Memoirs often fit into either (or both) camps of interpretation. We discussed Barbusse’s and Remarque’s works being more representative of a victimization narrative than Sassoon’s: their soldiers exchange their blood, youth, and lives in purposeless ways. For Jünger, war was a heroic experience tied more to notions of soldierly masculinity (and proving masculinity through hardship). The class really wrestled with the notion of victimization in Sassoon. He is a heroic figure but one who issues his famous anti-war protest in 1917. One student said he was ‘victimized by those who wanted him to be victimized’, which is kind of an interesting way at looking at him. Like notions of universalism, I am still trying to get my head around this idea.

I have to say, I didn’t see the conversation being based on these points. I thought we would have more of a discussion of plot, characters, and then talk a little bit about the memory of the war. Instead we had over an hour long discussion about really complicated ways of investigating soldier literature, memories, films, veterans, etc. I am sure I have missed things – so members of the class, feel free to continue the conversation below (or in class on Wednesday).