In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for All Quiet on the Western Front, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.Watch on:
- 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 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.
What are your thoughts?
Are there more themes you think should be part of the Colossus Movie Guide for All Quiet on the Western Front? Leave your comments below and we’ll consider updating the guide.
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