In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for All Quiet on the Western Front, we will explain the film’s ending.
- 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
The end of All Quiet on the Western Front explained
All Quiet ends 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.
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