All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Today, All Quiet on the Western Front feels pretty old. It’s not until you give it some consideration afterwards that you realise how ahead of its time it must have been, and appreciate the artistic, and likely financial, risks taken by the producers. The Academy deserves big cred for selecting this film as a Best Picture winner.
A lot of films today seem to draw on the idea of de-humanisation, losing a sense of self amidst the machine of war or some other institutional power. All Quiet on the Western Front does the opposite of this, humanising aspects of war which we would rather not. All Quiet shows us World War One through the eyes of ‘The Enemy’, Germany. We follow the war-time experiences of a group of young soldiers from recruitment until one by one they are all killed on the battlefield. Even today some of the scenes are difficult to watch, and I’m pretty sure that everyone who sees this film is likely to find something hard-hitting at least once.
This said, it’s still difficult for a modern audience. Despite being explicitly German, the actors all speak with American accents. I’m tempted to offer an ‘they’re just getting used to sound’ excuse, but then I remember that theatre has been around for centuries and that acting with voice is nothing new! I also felt that All Quiet was noticeably lacking in any sort of external musical score. Maybe this helped achieve a type of cinéma-vérité style which would no doubt have been well ahead of its time, but for me it served tomake the film a bit harder to connect with emotionally. What I realised watching this film is the power which music has to help guide the rhythm of cinema. Music helps an audience move beyond the aesthetic of a film and feel a deeper sense of connection.
There’s no denying that All Quiet on the Western Front is an important addition to the historical canon of filmmaking. The artistic choices made by this team are progressive even by today’s standards, and it’s a compliment to the Academy that this film was awarded the equivalent of Best Picture in 1930.