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What is All Quiet on the Western Front about?
All Quiet on the Western Front is obviously about the horror of war. But it also makes a statement on the cyclical nature of the experience. We open on the Western Front and follow Heinrich into battle. He could easily be the protagonist. 2 intense minutes later, Heinrich is in a pile of bodies. So we move on to Paul. And follow Paul on an odyssey that Henrich probably also went on, from being a school boy, to recruitment, to processing, to the trenches of the Western Front, to losing his friends, to losing hope, to losing his life. At the end, a recruit Paul saves picks up the torch and collects dog tags the same way we saw Paul do near the beginning. Unlike other main characters, Paul isn’t a hero on a unique, one-of-a-kind journey. He’s not Luke Skywalker. He’s not Ellen Ripley. He’s one of millions of other young people who could have had good lives if they weren’t thrown into a mulcher. Others preceded him. Others have followed. More will follow. It’s heartbreaking.
Other themes include loss of innocence, the disconnect between politicians and soldiers, egotistical leaders, timing, and the subtext of not showing kindness and the cost of that choice.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Paul Bäumer – Felix Kammerer
- Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky – Albrecht Schuch
- Albert Kropp – Aaron Hilmer
- Franz Müller – Moritz Klaus
- Ludwig Behm – Adrian Grünewald
- Tjaden Stackfleet – Edin Hasanovic
- General Friedrichs – Devid Striesow
- General Ferdinand Foch – Thibault de Montalembert
- Matthias Erzberger – Daniel Brühl
- Written by – Edward Berger | Ian Stokell | Lesley Paterson
- Directed by: Edward Berger
- Based on the novel: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
The ending of All Quiet on the Western Front explained
The ending of All Quiet on the Western Front begins in the first minutes after the conclusion of World War I. The Western Front is suddenly calm. Both the French and German forces have given up their combat. A mortally wounded Paul exits from a bunker behind enemy lines and walks through their trenches. No one cares about him. We see the poster Albert had pinned to a wall much earlier. Then a shot of General Friendrichs in supreme disappointment. Soldiers wander across the battlefield, returning each to their own side.
An officer finds an unnamed young man and tells him to collect the dog tags of the fallen. This young man is someone introduced just a few minutes earlier, during the final attempt to take the French bunker. Paul had saved him, twice. It’s this young man who discovers Paul’s body. He gives a long, long look. He notices the scarf in Paul’s hand, takes it but not the dog tags, puts it around his neck, then leaves. The camera lingers on Paul’s still face. A cut takes us back to the film’s opening shot. A distant look at the Western Front gone quiet.
This conclusion mixes tragedy with bittersweet hope. On the one hand, we’re sad that Paul has passed. It’s awful that he survived so much of the war only to be thrown into one last, pointless conflict. He made it to the final seconds but was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Stabbed through the chest, he has enough strength left to experience what it means for the war to truly be finished, to have a sense of potential and promise. But then it’s gone. He’s gone. He was the last of his group. Paul, Albert, Franz, Ludwig. The annihilation of that small group symbolizes the generations of young men lost to vapid, futile military machismo.
On the other hand, Paul’s final charge saved the life of the unknown young man. This young man will go on to live his life. That moment he has with Paul is an acknowledgement of the gift Paul gave him. You can view the choice of taking the scarf instead of the dog tags as symbolic of this transition from being a soldier to being a person. Franz got the scarf from Eloise, a girl he spent an evening with. For Franz, it was a small respite from soldiering, an oasis where he got to, for a few hours, be a simple teenager doing teenage things. The scarf was a token of that experience. A reminder of the better things in this world. It carried the hope of returning to such an existence. When Paul took up the scarf, it was in honor of Franz and the others. To live for them. It’s the same for the unknown young man. He’s done being a soldier. He gets to, once again, be a human.
All Quiet manages to both condemn those (through General Friedrichs) who started and guided the war to such a terrible place and memorialize the sacrifice of the soldiers. Paul and others like him didn’t do anything groundbreaking that historians would tell tales of. They were the average. But that doesn’t mean what they did didn’t matter. On a smaller, personal scale, everything they did mattered to someone. To the enemies they slayed. To the friends and strangers they saved, purposefully, accidentally, unintentionally.
As heartbreaking as the end is, that sense of continuity and perseverance, of giving one life for another, of the implication of each generation sacrificing for the next, is quite beautiful. It’s this polarizing emotion that echoes in the solitude of that last shot of the Western Front. The silence is good because it means the war is over. But because we know the cost of that quiet, sorrow saturates the moment. It’s not a simple thing for a story to end on such emotional duality. That All Quiet on the Western Front accomplishes it is a testament to the quality of its writing.
The themes and meaning of All Quiet on the Western Front
The cycle of lost youth
All Quiet begins by following a young soldier named Heinrich. Heinrich’s part of a wave of German soldiers who leave the trench to attack the Allied position across the battlefield. All around him, other young men fall. Strangers and acquaintances. Friends. It’s awful. The whole thing is awful. But Heinrich is surviving. He’s surviving. He’s surviving. Then we cut to later and he’s dead. He’s one of many bodies collected and stripped of uniform and the uniforms go back to Germany to be cleaned, mended, and re-gifted.
That’s when we pick up with Paul. We watch Paul journey from the average school boy, to a recruit peer-pressured into the army, to in the army, and then the hell that follows. Twice, Paul is in the exact same kind of tragic surge that Heinrich was part of. The first time he lives. The second time he doesn’t.
At the end of the movie, we attach to an unnamed soldier. He’s as average as Heinrich and Paul were. Just as young. He’s tasked with collecting dog tags from the fallen. Earlier, Paul collected dog tags after a battle. If the war hadn’t ended, you could imagine the movie continuing with this kid, him having very similar experiences to Paul, then meeting a comparable fate.
The point of this sad passing of the torch from Heinrich to Paul to the kid at the end is to show how commonplace this story was. The initial innocence. The awakening to horror. The loss of friends, old and new. The withering of the soul. And the inevitable annihilation. None of them were the typical hero that goes on a one-of-a-kind journey and achieves greatness. Instead, they represent the average. All the Heinrichs, all the Pauls, all the others tossed into the trenches by maniacal leaders. At one point, Kat comments, “Soon, Germany will be empty.”
Yes, the war ends and many soldiers return home. But what are the lingering effects? Not just on the soldiers but the millions of families who lost their children?
A haunting sense
The opening shot is a distant look at the Western Front. Then the camera dives into nature. Trees. Foxes. It should be serene. But concussions and rifle fire shatter the solitude. We’re shown that the Western Front is not a quiet place. It’s busy and loud.
When the war ends, you hear it. The silence says everything. We see how happy Kat is when he wakes up after the signing and the world outside is calm. Paul asks, “Why aren’t you sleeping.” And Kat says, “Listen.” After a beat, he continues, “It’s so quiet here. I think I’ve gone deaf. They’ve signed, Paul. The war’s over.” You get the sense he could cry.
Except there’s one last strike, a senseless, hollow effort demanded by General Friedrichs. Once more, the rifles sing. The artillery rings. Bombs blow. Soldiers scream. Then 11 o’clock sounds and the war is over. The hush resumes. We’re supposed to feel relief. The quiet is meant to be a good thing. While it bodes well for those who survived, it’s hard not to think of those who didn’t. All Quiet’s final shot brings us back full-circle to that distant look at the Western Front. Except now we know all the terrible things that happened. We’re far away, but we’ve been up close. We’ve been there with Heinrich. With Paul. With so many others. The silence isn’t silent. The memories are too loud. The enormity of what’s been lost. It reverberates.
The ego, disconnect, and absurdity of those in power
General Friedrichs didn’t exist. He’s a made-up character who embodies Germany’s military leadership. Through him, All Quiet has a lot to say about those in charge. The scenes with Friedrichs are infuriating because of the juxtaposition between what Paul and the others are going through versus Friendrichs living in luxury, eating nice meals, philosophizing. While millions of young people lose their lives, he does absolutely nothing of value. It’s unfair. It’s gross. It’s absurd.
The culmination of this is the final charge. Friendrichs can’t just accept the war is over. No. He wants to end on a “victory”. Will that do anything for Germany? Absolutely not. It’s not helping anyone. Serving anyone. It’s for his ego and his ego alone. The loser can’t accept the loss. So he sends more young men to their doom.
So far as I discovered, a final charge like this didn’t really happen. Thankfully. But it’s there because it says something real about the way in which some leaders throw away lives. That’s not a “Germany in WWI” problem. It’s a timeless woe. Ancient Rome’s Caligula was a Friedrichs. Genghis Khan was a Friedrichs. Napoleon. Tomas De Torquemada (Spanish Inquisition). Queen Mary. King Leopold II. Stalin. Hitler. General Amin. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon (Vietnam). It seems like there will always be leaders who view soldiers as fodder rather than people.
Why is the movie called All Quiet on the Western Front?
At the end of All Quiet on the Western Front, we’re told:
Shortly after the beginning of the war in October of 1914, the Western Front became bogged down in trench warfare. At the end of the war in November 1918, the front line had barely moved. More than three million soldiers died here, often while fighting to gain only a few hundred meters of ground.
For four years, the Western Front was a relentless clash of soldiers. Every week, thousands died and thousands more arrived to replace them. Everyday, you’d hear rifles, machine guns, artillery, tanks. Maybe if one side finally routed the other there would be a stretch of peace. But because of the deadlock, the fighting kept going and going and going and going. Neither the Germans nor the Allies would yield. So it was very loud.
But once the Allies and Germans sign an armistice, the fighting halts. For the first time in years. Which is why there’s that scene with Kat where he points out how quiet the day is. Initially, this silence is a relief. We can bask in the fact that Paul made it through. But General Friedrichs orders the 10:45am charge, a last attempt to close the war with a sense of victory. Many more soldiers who could have gone home, instead, end up as casualties. Pointless casualties. When 11am finally arrives and the war ends, a mortally wounded Paul walks out of a bunker and basks in the silence. Except now it’s bittersweet. He won’t make it. He won’t get to return to his life. So that last silence, the one that closes the movie, is incredibly bittersweet. The war is over. And that’s good. But you can’t help but think about all who were lost, sacrificed. The many, many Pauls, Kats, Alberts, Franzs, Ludwigs, Tjadens. They’re quiet too.
So the title has a ghostly quality to it that captures the gigantic sadness of war.
Important motifs in All Quiet on the Western Front
The scarf and dog tags
At the end of the movie, an unnamed soldier, who survived the final battle thanks to Paul, has to go through the trench and collect dog tags from the fallen soldiers. We watch him go body to body and retrieve the tags. Then he finds Paul. There’s a moment of pause. We don’t know for certain what’s going through this young man’s mind, but it’s probably something to do with the fact that he’s only alive thanks to Paul but now Paul’s gone. There’s probably a lot the kid wishes he could say but will never get to. Even a simple “Thank you.” But instead of collecting Paul’s dog tag, he notices the scarf in Paul’s hand. He takes it, puts it around his neck, and moves on.
The scarf originated earlier in the film after Paul’s friend, Franz, ran off with a group of girls who drove a cart past the military camp. Franz returns deep into the night, happy as can be. He has the scarf as a memento from Eloise, the girl he hooked up with. As brief as his departure was, it was a reminder that most of these soldiers are teenagers who want to be doing and could be doing and should be doing the simple things teenagers do. Not fighting in trenches. It’s this moment of innocence and beauty. And the scarf becomes symbolic for not only the memory of that but the promise of it. The longing for it. The hope to, one day, return to regular life.
Unfortunately, the scarf came into Paul’s possession because Franz did not survive the conflict. It was taken as a memento. And as a vow. Paul would carry on in memory of Franz. And live for them both. Likewise, the unnamed soldier acquires the scarf because Paul did not survive. He, too, takes it up as a memento.
The choice to take the scarf rather than the dog tag gets at the tension between the experience of being a soldier in a conflict such as this. The soldiers are still people. But the military often treats them as things. Dehumanized instruments. And the dog tag is quite literally the identity of the soldier. But the scarf is a reminder of humanity. Of the dreams and emotions. So choosing the scarf over the dog tag is this powerful gesture of acknowledging Paul’s humanity over his military being. While also embodying the fact that the war is done. That the soldiers who remain can reclaim the rest of their lives.
The farmer’s son
Kat doesn’t die in battle. Rather, he’s hunted down by the young son of a farmer that Kat and Paul steal from. It’s a complicated moment. On the one hand, Kat and Paul did steal from this family. They climbed a wall. Broke in. Took what didn’t belong to them. On the other hand, the first time they took a single goose and the second time a few eggs. A crime is a crime. But relatively speaking, it’s a minor crime. They didn’t hurt anyone. They didn’t attack anyone. They didn’t leave the family destitute. So some viewers will think the farmer’s son going out of his way to find Kat and Paul is a bit excessive. Maybe even unbelievable.
But there’s a bit more to it.
First, there’s the tragedy that Kat lost his own son a number of years ago. So there’s a moment when he turns and sees the farmer’s boy that he has to, even if only briefly, think about his own boy. You could begin to make the argument that the farmer’s son represents this grief that Kat has never gotten over.
Second, and more importantly, this scene immediately follows the signing of the armistice. Right before signing, there’s a discussion between Matthias Erzberger, the German official negotiating surrender, and the Allied representatives.
Matthias: The Kaiser has abdicated. Soldiers are refusing to obey orders. Deserters are roaming the countryside. The new government will do its utmost to fulfill the duties imposed on it, but the population, through no fault of its own, risks descending into famine and anarchy.
Allied Rep: This is a disease of the defeated, not of the victorious. I don’t fear it. I reject any compromise.
M: Monsieur le Maréchal, please. Be fair to your enemy, otherwise he will hate this peace.
For viewers unfamiliar with historical events, this might seem like a throwaway line of dialogue. But for those who do know history, the harshness of the sanctions on post-war Germany led to the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, and World War II. With this in mind, it’s hard not to look at the violent aggression of the farmer boy as having a lot more subtext. That can be as simple as already demonstrating the frustration brewing in the general population, an example of the anarchy Matthias referenced. You might even want to go as far as to say the boy symbolizes World War II itself, the idea that the events of that day created the anger and frustration that eventually matured into the next great conflict. Regardless of how safe or big you want to go with the interpretation, there is something to the moment. Especially because it’s not in the book. The scene is original to the movie. And this is the kind of movie that is meticulously crafted. So it’s not a mistake that it directly follows the armistice signing.
Questions & answers about All Quiet on the Western Front
Is the movie similar to the book?
The movie is very different from the book. A lot of the book is a first-person stream of consciousness from Paul. There are scenes, like when he and Kat steal a goose from the farm. But the book is a lot more poetic and free-flowing than the movie. Also, the book first came out in 1928. It had the benefit of being close to the events of the time. But was limited in the consequences of those events. The movie coming out in 2022 means it’s more removed from the events but has 100 years of hindsight and insight to draw upon. For example, the original author, Erich Maria Remarque had no idea World War II would happen so soon. But the movie creators have that information. Which is why they added the armistice scenes and the implication that the terms of surrender would embitter the German population, something that directly led to the rise of Hitler.
The farm boy does not pursue Paul and Kat. Rather, Kat’s just randomly hit by shrapnel. It’s not this tragic, “we were so close to making it through but did something stupid” moment. It’s a very average, mundane happening in the war.
Same with Paul’s own demise. In the novel the last we hear from Paul is that he’s on two weeks of rest because, in his own words, “I have swallowed a bit of gas”. His final thoughts are ruminations on how difficult it will be to return home. How, for some, it will be absolutely impossible to assimilate. “We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered; the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.”
Paul’s final words are bittersweet. Those of a broken spirit that still, despite its pain, struggles on. “Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear. The life that has borne me through these years is still in my hands and my eyes. Whether I have subdued it, I know not. But so long as it is there it will seek its own way out, heedless of the will that is within me.”
The irony of the difference between the book and movie is that since the book is from Paul’s perspective we know him so well. Just that final paragraph is so vulnerable and insightful. Yet the movie keeps Paul at a distance. We don’t know his inner thoughts or feelings. He’s often a mystery. There are a few moments where the emotion comes screaming through. But, for the most part, movie Paul is a far greater mystery than novel Paul.
Also, the entire final battle does not happen in the novel. All of that, including the entire character of General Friedrichs, is only in the movie. Much like with the death of Kat, Paul’s own demise is uneventful. The final page states, “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.” No grand charge. No last skirmishes and mortal combat. A matter of fact line. Followed by, “He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.” Yeesh.
So the movie offers a lot more hope than the novel.
Now it’s your turn
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