The new movie of this title is available in Britain in both digital and film versions. I saw a 35mm print at The Parkway in Barnsley. This is a German adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s famous anti-war novel. There had already been two earlier versions: in 1930 what is a classic Hollywood film which was distributed in both sound and silent versions: and a 1979 USA/British television version which in Europe is a shorter, missing some scenes.

Remarque’s novel, ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’, ’Nothing New in the West’, was published in 1929. The novel describes the experiences of German enlisted men on the western front between the early days of the World War I and its final resolution in 1918. Remarque wrote in the published book;

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.”

The novel is narrated by Paul Bauer, a young enlisted man in the German army. He describes the experiences of himself and a group of comrades on the western front in World War I. Details are scarce in the book but it seems likely that they arrived at the front in 1916 and were there on and off until late 1918. Paul describes their experiences in the trenches, on the battlefield, in times away from the front, and periods spent at home or in hospital. Paul starts the narration in the first person but soon also uses the first person plural, describing experiences as that of a group. Some of the narration is in the past tense; much is in the present. The war he describes is brutal and violent as are the scenes of death and destruction. Some times spent behind the lines are lighter in tone and stress the importance of food, but the hospitals are as deadly and people on the home front do not comprehend the savagery of the war. Besides his army comrades Paul describes, NCOs, officers and at one point medal giving by the Kaiser. There are relatively brief sequences with civilians, men and women; and one short idyll with young women. The last paragraph in the book, in October 1918, is written in the third person;

“there was nothing new to report on the western front.”

There are only passing references to the military High Command and even sparser references to other theatres, notably the Russian Front. The enemy includes British artillery, English soldiers and later soldiers from the USA. The latter arrive as new weapons, tanks and flamethrowers, also arrive. The only soldiers Paul confronts in person are the French.

The 1930 and 1979 film versions have pretty similar plot lines. The US version was produced at Universal Studios: the original release ran two and half hours: the soundtrack was mainly in English with some occasional German and French phrases. Rather than narration by Paul the film opts for a more detached viewpoint but limited to Paul’s experience. The film’s plot commences early in the war with the young male students being harangued by their teacher on the glories of dying for the Fatherland. Once recruited and sent to the front they are quickly disillusioned. The experience of trench warfare and of battles is violently presented. And there are remarkable tracking shots in the trenches and across no-man land between the two fronts. It includes even such a harrowing sequence as Paul having to lie in a shell hole with a dying French soldier. Visits to home demonstrate the incomprehension of civilians regarding the war experience. Breaks from the front line, including the scavenging of food and the idyll with young French women are included. The film ends late in 1918 in a different manner from the novel.

The 1979 film was a production for Television produced jointly by US and British Companies: Norman Rosemont Productions and ITC Entertainment: transmitted in the USA by CBS. It is in colour and either academy or 16:9 ratio. The soundtrack is in English with some French phrases; it partially recreates the narrative style of the novel with a voice over narration by Paul, but this regularly stops and the narration becomes more omniscient., It originally it ran two and half hours, but there are several shorter versions. The plot line is fairly similar to the earlier film. The trench and battle field combat are well done but less effective than the earlier film with less mobile camerawork. This version includes a brief sequence where the Kaiser awards medals. The ending, different from the book, is a variation of that in the earlier film.

The latest version is fairly different from the two earlier ones. It was filmed digitally in full anamorphic, 2.39:1 and the soundtrack is in German with occasional French dialogue. The German dialogue is subtitled in English; the French dialogue is subtitled into both English and German. There is a noticeable music score which often self-consciously points up the drama and violence. It open in 1917 and continues right up to the armistice on November 11th 1918.

The film opens with a shot of a fox set in a woods close to the front line. There are several later scenes with the soldiers in this setting. After this we see both the recruitment and active service of a small group of young German men. The actual fighting and battle scenes are exceptionally violent. It is a powerful indictment of the brutality which was marked this new form of warfare and which neither the Generals, politicians or general public on either side really understood. There is only one sequence showing us the home front and civilians; though families and especially mothers are in the men’s dialogue. There are in addition, to the other films and to the book, scenes of the High Command in their more privileged situations; and approaching the armistice we also social democratic politicians, clearly ineffective in controlling the military. Women are almost entirely absent. We do not see women at home or the French girls who appeared in the earlier films. The film opens with a fox set in woodland and there we see both a vixen and her cubs; the woodland is close the army lines and is a place of relative quiet compared to the trenches and the intervening no-man land. Later we see a poster of a man and woman; and the picture of the woman is torn off and seen hanging on the parapet of a trench.

The film’s ending is different from the novel and from the earlier films which themselves have different endings from the book. There are scenes of the armistice negotiations. And the ending takes us right up to the cease-fire at 1100 hours. Here we see a German attack not in the book or in the other films; in fact some sporadic fighting continued after the armistice; whether this is a historical episode or not I have yet to discover.

What is also found only in the new version is any reference to the harbinger of an alternative to imperialist war; the Revolution in Russia in 1917. This is a reference by a social democratic politician of the danger of ‘the Bolsheviks’. In all the various stories the plot is restricted to the western front; echoing the obsession of political elites of the time. The wider war on the Eastern front, in Arabia and in Africa are absent: as are the inspired struggles like the German Revolution and the Easter Rising in Ireland: we do see a refusal of orders by ordinary soldiers. Such a viewpoint follows on from the concentration on the soldier experience; a civilian in the two early version claims that they have a restricted view rather than an overall perception of the war.

The solders experience demonstrates the military high command’s incomprehension of how modern warfare would work. This despite the lessons demonstrated some decades earlier in the Civil War in the USA. And, especially in Germany, there is the inadequacy of tactics, resources and material support. So by 1918 the German infantry are far worse served than their enemy combatants. This is despite the almost hysterical nationalism that fuelled a war fever in Germany, in Britain, in France and in Russia.

The book and all three film versions are presented as ‘anti-war texts’. However, they all fail, calling up the criticism made by Andrew Britten in Movie;

“The ‘anti-war’ film tends to protest against war as such from an abstractly moral point of view… war is extrapolated from its socio-economic causes and functions and we are confronted with its ‘horrors’ – “

This applies exactly to the original novel and to all of the film adaptations. The 1922 version does attempt to broaden to the critique by including the military High Command – the villains – and the social democrats – ineffective. The attitude of the French delegation at the armistice talks parallels these. But whilst this is a class conflict, junkers versus workers – it remains at an individualist level rather than addressing the social and economic factors. In all four versions the blind patriotic enthusiasm of the civilians is likewise lacking the social and economic factors. I should add that the ‘horrors’ depicted graphically in the original novel are never completely translated to the screens, even in the brutal depictions of the German film. To give one example: in the novel there are a number of graphic descriptions by Paul of bodies and body parts hanging from trees: including naked corpses stripped by the blast of explosions. None of the film-makers had the temerity to depict this on screen.

The 1922 the black and white film offered a sound track meaning an aspect ratio of 1.20:1; the silent version was in 1.33:1. The 1979 film was in colour and academy ratio for television. Now, in 2022 the film presented is in full anamorphic ratio of 2.39:1 and in colour. The movie was actually shot on digital Arriflex cameras together with special effects cameras and lenses. The 35mm print version is on Kodak film.

Before the screening at The Parkway we had an introduction for the manager/ projectionist Bob Younger. He explained the 35mm prints came from the USA; processed at the Fotokem Laboratory. It seems that the 35mm reels used in the USA are different from those used in Europe. So, there is a knack in transferring the film onto house reels or, as in this case, onto a platter. In fact, this worked fine. It was a good print visually and orally. I have not seen a digital version but the special effects fitted well in the image; not always the case with digital files.

The quotations from the novel are the translated edition by Brian Murdoch from 1994.

Movie issue 27/28 is Winter 1980 / Spring 1981; Andrew Britten’s article addresses ‘Hollywood in Vietnam’ as part of ‘American [i.e. USA] Cinema in the ‘70s’.