April 2, 2018  (Web Review)

Westfront 1918

Criterion, 96 min., in German & French w/English subtitles, not rated, DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $39.99

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Georg Wilhelm Pabst was one of the great German directors of the silent film era. For his first sound film he chose an anti-war drama about four soldiers in the trenches of the Western front in the final months of World War I. In the tradition of the platoon drama, members of the quartet represent different types—the young student, the hearty Bavarian, the protective lieutenant, and the married man Karl (the only one to be called by name)—who have bonded as friends under fire, but the war will grind them up, leaving them dead or broken. Westfront 1918 was made in 1930, the same year as the more expensive Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front, but Pabst’s film is more intimate and focuses on the experience of the men in combat. There is no talk of politics and no flashbacks to life before the war, and when one soldier returns home on leave he finds a population so starved from food shortages that the civilians envy the soldiers. Unlike in most early sound films, Pabst’s camera is mobile, full of long tracking shots along the trenches and traveling with the soldiers as they advance. He also uses sound for both realistic and expressionistic effect, with the echo of artillery a near-constant soundtrack even when behind the front lines (a reminder that the war is never far off). It’s a downbeat film full of scenes of death and loss, but one that makes a powerful anti-war statement, with no glory or triumph. Presented in a handsome Criterion edition, extras include a 1969 French TV program with WWI veterans reacting to the film, a 2016 video interview with film historian Jan-Christopher Horak, a 1988 audio interview with editor Jean Oser, and a restoration demo. Recommended. (S. Axmaker)