Pre Code Hollywood Season: FD Cinematheque
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis Jr, Walter Rogers, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Richard Alexander, Harold Goodwin, Slim Summerville, G Pat Collins, Beryl Mercer, Edmund Breese, Zasu Pitts ( silent version only ), Raymond Griffith, Joan Marsh, Fred Zinnemann, Dorothy Vernon, Wolfgang Staudte, Robert Parrish, Yola D’Avril
All Quiet on the Western Front (German: Im Westen nichts Neues, lit. ‘In the West Nothing New’) is a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. The book describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front.
The novel was first published in November and December 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in late January 1929. The book and its sequel, The Road Back (1930), were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany. All Quiet on the Western Front sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print.
In 1930, the book was adapted as an Academy-Award-winning film of the same name, directed by Lewis Milestone. It was adapted again in 1979 by Delbert Mann, this time as a television film starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine.
- 1 – Title and translation
- 2 – Plot summary
- 3 – Themes
- 4 – Main characters
- 5 – Minor characters
- 6 – Publication and reception
- 7 – Adaptations
- 8 – See also
- 9 – References
- 10 – External links
Title and translation
The English translation by Arthur Wesley Wheen gives the title as All Quiet on the Western Front. The literal translation of “Im Westen nichts Neues” is “In the West Nothing New,” with “West” being the Western Front; the phrase refers to the content of an official communiqué at the end of the novel.
Brian Murdoch’s 1993 translation would render the phrase as “there was nothing new to report on the Western Front” within the narrative. Explaining his retention of the original book-title, he says:
Although it does not match the German exactly, Wheen’s title has justly become part of the English language and is retained here with gratitude.
The phrase “all quiet on the Western Front” has become a colloquial expression meaning stagnation, or lack of visible change, in any context.
The book tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier who—urged on by his school teacher—joins the German army shortly after the start of World War I. His class was “scattered over the platoons amongst Frisian fishermen, peasants, and labourers.” Bäumer arrives at the Western Front with his friends and schoolmates (Leer, Müller, Kropp and a number of other characters). There they meet Stanislaus Katczinsky, an older soldier, nicknamed Kat, who becomes Paul’s mentor. While fighting at the front, Bäumer and his comrades have to engage in frequent battles and endure the treacherous and filthy conditions of trench warfare.
At the very beginning of the book, Erich Maria Remarque says “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 book does not focus on heroic stories of bravery, but rather gives a view of the conditions in which the soldiers find themselves. The monotony between battles, the constant threat of artillery fire and bombardments, the struggle to find food, the lack of training of young recruits (meaning lower chances of survival), and the overarching role of random chance in the lives and deaths of the soldiers are described in detail.
The battles fought here have no names and seem to have little overall significance, except for the impending possibility of injury or death for Bäumer and his comrades. Only pitifully small pieces of land are gained, about the size of a football field, which are often lost again later. Remarque often refers to the living soldiers as old and dead, emotionally drained and shaken. “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”
Paul’s visit on leave to his home highlights the cost of the war on his psyche. The town has not changed since he went off to war; however, he finds that he does “not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.” He feels disconnected from most of the townspeople. His father asks him “stupid and distressing” questions about his war experiences, not understanding “that a man cannot talk of such things.” An old schoolmaster lectures him about strategy and advancing to Paris while insisting that Paul and his friends know only their “own little sector” of the war but nothing of the big picture.
Indeed, the only person he remains connected to is his dying mother, with whom he shares a tender, yet restrained relationship. The night before he is to return from leave, he stays up with her, exchanging small expressions of love and concern for each other. He thinks to himself, “Ah! Mother, Mother! How can it be that I must part from you? Here I sit and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it.” In the end, he concludes that he “ought never to have come [home] on leave.”
Paul feels glad to be reunited with his comrades. Soon after, he volunteers to go on a patrol and kills a man for the first time in hand-to-hand combat. He watches the man die, in pain for hours. He feels remorse and asks forgiveness from the man’s corpse. He is devastated and later confesses to Kat and Albert, who try to comfort him and reassure him that it is only part of the war.
They are then sent on what Paul calls a “good job.” They must guard a supply depot in a village that was evacuated due to being shelled too heavily. During this time, the men are able to adequately feed themselves, unlike the near-starvation conditions in the German trenches. In addition, the men enjoy themselves while living off the spoils from the village and officers’ luxuries from the supply depot (such as fine cigars). While evacuating the villagers (enemy civilians), Paul and Albert are taken by surprise by artillery fired at the civilian convoy and wounded by a shell.
On the train back home, Albert takes a turn for the worse and cannot complete the journey, instead being sent off the train to recuperate in a Catholic hospital. Paul uses a combination of bartering and manipulation to stay by Albert’s side. Albert eventually has his leg amputated, while Paul is deemed fit for service and returned to the front.
By now, the war is nearing its end and the German Army is retreating. In despair, Paul watches as his friends fall one by one. It is the death of Kat that eventually makes Paul careless about living. In the final chapter, he comments that peace is coming soon, but he does not see the future as bright and shining with hope. Paul feels that he has no aims or goals left in life and that their generation will be different and misunderstood. When he dies at the end of the novel, the situation report from the frontline states, “All is Quiet on the Western Front.”
One of the major themes of the novel is the difficulty of soldiers to revert to civilian life after having experienced extreme combat situations. Remarque comments in the preface that “[This book] will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”
This internal destruction can be found as early as the first chapter as Paul comments that, although all the boys are young, their youth has left them. In addition, the massive loss of life and negligible gains from the fighting are constantly emphasized. Soldiers’ lives are thrown away by their commanding officers who are stationed comfortably away from the front, ignorant of the daily terrors of the front line.
Paul Bäumer is the main character and narrator. At 19 years of age, Paul enlists in the German Army and is deployed to the Western Front where he experiences the severe psychological and physical effects of the war. Before the war, Paul was a creative, sensitive and passionate person, writing poems and having a clear love for his family. But as the war changed his attitude and personality, poems and other aspects of his past life become something Paul was no longer linked to, since the horrors of war trained him to disconnect himself from his feelings. He feels he can’t tell anyone about his experiences and feels like an outsider where his family is concerned.
By the end of the book, Paul realises that he no longer knows what to do with himself and decides that he has nothing more to lose. The war appears to have snuffed out his hopes and dreams, which he feels he can never regain. After years of fighting in the war, Paul is finally killed in October 1918, on an extraordinarily quiet, peaceful day. The army report that day contains only one phrase: “All quiet on the Western Front.” As Paul dies, his face is calm, “as though almost glad the end had come.”
Kropp was in Paul’s class at school and is described as the clearest thinker of the group as well as the smallest. Kropp is wounded towards the end of the novel and undergoes a leg amputation. Both he and Bäumer end up spending time in a Catholic hospital together, Bäumer suffering from shrapnel wounds to the leg and arm. Though Kropp initially plans to commit suicide if he requires an amputation, the book suggests he postponed suicide because of the strength of military camaraderie. Kropp and Bäumer part ways when Bäumer is recalled to his regiment after recovering. Paul comments that saying farewell was “very hard, but it is something a soldier learns to deal with.”
Haie is described as being tall and strong, and a peat-digger by profession. Overall, his size and behavior make him seem older than Paul, yet he is the same age as Paul and his school-friends (roughly 19 at the start of the book). Haie, in addition, has a good sense of humor. During combat, he is injured in his back, fatally (Chapter 6)—the resulting wound is large enough for Paul to see Haie’s breathing lung when Himmelstoß (Himmelstoss) carries him to safety.
Müller is about 18 and a half years of age, one of Bäumer’s classmates, when he also joins the German army as a volunteer to go to the war. Carrying his old school books with him to the battlefield, he constantly reminds himself of the importance of learning and education. Even while under enemy fire, he “mutters propositions in physics”. He became interested in Kemmerich’s boots and inherits them when Kemmerich dies early in the novel. He is killed later in the book after being shot point-blank in the stomach with a “light pistol” (flare gun). As he was dying “quite conscious and in terrible pain”, he gave his boots which he inherited from Kemmerich to Paul.
Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky
Kat has the most positive influence on Paul and his comrades on the battlefield. Katczinsky was a cobbler (shoemaker) in civilian life; he is older than Paul Bäumer and his comrades, about 40 years old, and serves as their leadership figure. He also represents a literary model highlighting the differences between the younger and older soldiers. While the older men have already had a life of professional and personal experience before the war, Bäumer and the men of his age have had little life experience or time for personal growth.
Kat is also well known for his ability to scavenge nearly any item needed, especially food. At one point he secures four boxes of lobster. Bäumer describes Kat as possessing a sixth sense. One night, Bäumer along with a group of other soldiers are holed up in a factory with neither rations nor comfortable bedding. Katczinsky leaves for a short while, returning with straw to put over the bare wires of the beds. Later, to feed the hungry men, Kat brings bread, a bag of horse flesh, a lump of fat, a pinch of salt and a pan in which to cook the food.
Kat is hit by shrapnel at the end of the story, leaving him with a smashed shin. Paul carries him back to camp on his back, only to discover upon their arrival that a stray splinter had hit Kat in the back of the head and killed him on the way. He is thus the last of Paul’s close friends to die in battle. It is Kat’s death that eventually makes Bäumer careless whether he survives the war or not, but that he can face the rest of his life without fear. “Let the months and the years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear.”
One of Bäumer’s non-schoolmate friends. Before the war, Tjaden was a locksmith. A big eater with a grudge against the former postman-turned corporal Himmelstoß (thanks to his strict ‘disciplinary actions’), he manages to forgive Himmelstoß later in the book. Throughout the book, Paul frequently remarks on how much of an eater he is, yet somehow manages to stay as “thin as a rake”. The fate of Tjaden is unknown but he appears in the sequel, The Road Back.
Kantorek was the schoolmaster of Paul and his friends, including Kropp, Leer, Müller, and Behm. Behaving “in a way that cost [him] nothing,” Kantorek is a strong supporter of the war and encourages Bäumer and other students in his class to join the war effort. Among twenty enlistees was Joseph Behm, the first of the class to die in battle. In an example of tragic irony, Behm was the only one who did not want to enter the war.
Kantorek is a hypocrite, urging the young men he teaches to fight in the name of patriotism, while not voluntarily enlisting himself. In a twist of fate, Kantorek is later called up as a soldier as well. He very reluctantly joins the ranks of his former students, only to be drilled and taunted by Mittelstädt, one of the students he had earlier persuaded to enlist.
Leer is an intelligent soldier in Bäumer’s company, and one of his classmates. He is very popular with women; when he and his comrades meet three French women, he is the first to seduce one of them. Bäumer describes Leer’s ability to attract women by saying “Leer is an old hand at the game”. In chapter 11, Leer is hit by a shell fragment, which also hits Bertinck. The shrapnel tears open Leer’s hip, causing him to bleed to death quickly. His death causes Paul to ask himself, “What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician in school?”
Lieutenant Bertinck is the leader of Bäumer’s company. His men have a great respect for him, and Bertinck has great respect for his men. He permits them to eat the rations of the men that had been killed in action, standing up to the chef Ginger who would only allow them their allotted share. Bertinck is genuinely despondent when he learns that few of his men had survived an engagement.
When he and the other characters are trapped in a trench under heavy attack, Bertinck, who has been injured in the firefight, spots a flamethrower team advancing on them. He gets out of cover and takes aim on the flamethrower but misses, and gets hit by enemy fire. With his next shot he kills the flamethrower, and immediately afterwards an enemy shell explodes on his position blowing off his chin. The same explosion also fatally wounds Leer.
Corporal Himmelstoss (spelled Himmelstoß in some editions) was a postman before enlisting in the war. He is a power-hungry corporal with special contempt for Paul and his friends, taking sadistic pleasure in punishing the minor infractions of his trainees during their basic training in preparation for their deployment.
Paul later figures that the training taught by Himmelstoss made them “hard, suspicious, pitiless, and tough” but most importantly it taught them comradeship. However, Bäumer and his comrades have a chance to get back at Himmelstoss because of his punishments, mercilessly whipping him on the night before they board trains to go to the front.
Himmelstoss later joins them at the front, revealing himself as a coward who shirks his duties for fear of getting hurt or killed, and pretends to be wounded because of a scratch on his face. Paul Bäumer beats him because of it and when a lieutenant comes along looking for men for a trench charge, Himmelstoss joins and leads the charge. He carries Haie Westhus’s body to Bäumer after he is fatally wounded. Matured and repentant through his experiences Himmelstoß later asks for forgiveness from his previous charges. As he becomes the new staff cook, to prove his friendship he secures two pounds of sugar for Bäumer and half a pound of butter for Tjaden.
Detering is a farmer who constantly longs to return to his wife and farm. He is also fond of horses and is angered when he sees them used in combat. He says, “It is of the vilest baseness to use horses in the war,” when the group hears several wounded horses writhe and scream for a long time before dying during a bombardment. He tries to shoot them to put them out of misery, but is stopped by Kat to keep their current position hidden. He is driven to desert when he sees a cherry tree in blossom, which reminds him of home too much and inspires him to leave. He is found by military police and court-martialed, and is never heard from again.
Hamacher is a patient at the Catholic hospital where Paul and Albert Kropp are temporarily stationed. He has an intimate knowledge of the workings of the hospital. He also has a “Special Permit,” certifying him as sporadically not responsible for his actions due to a head wound, though he is clearly quite sane and exploiting his permit so he can stay in the hospital and away from the war as long as possible.
A young boy of only 19 years. Franz Kemmerich had enlisted in the army for World War I along with his best friend and classmate, Bäumer. Kemmerich is shot in the leg early in the story; his injured leg has to be amputated, and he dies shortly after. In anticipation of Kemmerich’s imminent death, Müller was eager to get his boots. While in the hospital, someone steals Kemmerich’s watch that he intended to give to his mother, causing him great distress and prompting him to ask about his watch every time his friends visit him in the hospital. Paul later finds the watch and hands it over to Kemmerich’s mother, only to lie and say Franz died instantly and painlessly when questioned.
A student in Paul’s class who is described as youthful and overweight. Behm was the only student that was not quickly influenced by Kantorek’s patriotism to join the war, but eventually, due to pressure from friends and Kantorek, he joins the war. He is the first of Paul’s friends to die. He is blinded in no man’s land and believed to be dead by his friends. The next day, when he is seen walking blindly around no-man’s-land, it is discovered that he was only unconscious. However, he is killed before he can be rescued.
Publication and reception
Erich Maria Remarque
From November 10 to December 9, 1928, All Quiet on the Western Front was published in serial form in Vossische Zeitung magazine. It was released in book form the following year to smashing success, selling one and a half million copies that same year. Although publishers had worried that interest in World War I had waned more than 10 years after the armistice, Remarque’s realistic depiction of trench warfare from the perspective of young soldiers struck a chord with the war’s survivors—soldiers and civilians alike—and provoked strong reactions, both positive and negative, around the world.
With All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque emerged as an eloquent spokesman for a generation that had been, in his own words, “destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.” Remarque’s harshest critics, in turn, were his countrymen, many of whom felt the book denigrated the German war effort, and that Remarque had exaggerated the horrors of war to further his pacifist agenda. The strongest voices against Remarque came from the emerging National Socialist Party and its ideological allies. In 1933, when the Nazis rose to power, All Quiet on the Western Front became one of the first degenerate books to be publicly burnt; in 1930 screenings of the Academy Award-winning film based on the book were met with Nazi-organized protests and mob attacks on both movie theatres and audience members.
However, objections to Remarque’s portrayal of the German army personnel during World War I were not limited to the Nazis. Dr. Karl Kroner (de) objected to Remarque’s depiction of the medical personnel as being inattentive, uncaring, or absent from frontline action. Dr. Kroner was specifically worried that the book would perpetuate German stereotypes abroad that had subsided since the First World War. He offered the following clarification: “People abroad will draw the following conclusions: if German doctors deal with their own fellow countrymen in this manner, what acts of inhumanity will they not perpetuate against helpless prisoners delivered up into their hands or against the populations of occupied territory?” 
A fellow patient of Remarque’s in the military hospital in Duisburg objected to the negative depictions of the nuns and patients, and of the general portrayal of soldiers: “There were soldiers to whom the protection of homeland, protection of house and homestead, protection of family were the highest objective, and to whom this will to protect their homeland gave the strength to endure any extremities.”
These criticisms suggest that perhaps experiences of the war and the personal reactions of individual soldiers to their experiences may be more diverse than Remarque portrays them; however, it is beyond question that Remarque gives voice to a side of the war and its experience that was overlooked or suppressed at the time. This perspective is crucial to understanding the true effects of World War I. The evidence can be seen in the lingering depression that Remarque and many of his friends and acquaintances were suffering a decade later.
In contrast, All Quiet on the Western Front was trumpeted by pacifists as an anti-war book. Remarque makes a point in the opening statement that the novel does not advocate any political position, but is merely an attempt to describe the experiences of the soldier.
The main artistic criticism was that it was a mediocre attempt to cash in on public sentiment. The enormous popularity the work received was a point of contention for some literary critics, who scoffed at the fact that such a simple work could be so earth-shattering.
Much of this literary criticism came from Salomo Friedlaender, who wrote a book Hat Erich Maria Remarque wirklich gelebt? “Did Erich Maria Remarque really live?” (under pen name Mynona), which was, it its turn, criticized in: Hat Mynona wirklich gelebt? “Did Mynona really live?” by Kurt Tucholsky.
Friedlaender’s criticism was mainly personal in nature—he attacked Remarque as being ego-centric and greedy. Remarque publicly stated that he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front for personal reasons, not for profit, as Friedlaender had claimed. Max Joseph Wolff wrote a parody titled Vor Troja nichts Neues (Compared to Troy, Nothing New) under the pseudonym Emil Marius Requark.
In 1930, an American film of the novel was made, directed by Lewis Milestone; with a screenplay by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews, C. Gardner Sullivan; and with uncredited work by Walter Anthony and Milestone. It stars Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, and Ben Alexander.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1930 for its producer Carl Laemmle Jr., the Academy Award for Directing for Lewis Milestone, and the Academy Award for Outstanding Production. It was the first all-talking non-musical film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It also received two further nominations: Best Cinematography, for Arthur Edeson, and Best Writing Achievement for Abbott, Anderson, and Andrews.
Elton John‘s album Jump Up! (1982) features the song, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (written by Elton and Bernie Taupin). The song is a sorrowful rendition of the novel’s story (“It’s gone all quiet on the Western Front / Male Angels sigh / ghosts in a flooded trench / As Germany dies”).
Bob Dylan, during his Nobel Laureate lecture, cited this book as one that had a profound effect on this songwriting.
On November 9, 2008, a radio adaptation of the novel was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, starring Robert Lonsdale as Paul Bäumer and Shannon Graney as Katczinsky. Its screenplay was written by Dave Sheasby, and the show was directed by David Hunter.
- Eksteins, Modris (April 1980). “All Quiet on the Western Front and the Fate of a War”. Journal of Contemporary History. SAGE Publications. 15 (2): 353. doi:10.1177/002200948001500207.
- Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. 2009. p. 48.
- Chapter Ten of All Quiet on the Western Front
- All Quiet on the Western Front (London: Putnam & Company Ltd, 1970 reprint), page 240.
- “Nov 10, 1928: Remarque publishes All Quiet on the Western Front”. History.com. Retrieved June 3, 2013.
- Sauer, Patrick (June 16, 2015). “The Most Loved and Hated Novel About World War I”. Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved June 21, 2015.
- Patrick Clardy. “All Quiet on the Western Front: Reception”. Yale Modernism Lab. Retrieved June 3, 2013.
- Barker, Christine R.; Last, Rex William (1979). Erich Maria Remarque. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
- Wagner, Hans (1991). Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
- Kurt Tucholsky (under pen name Ignaz Wrobel), Hat Mynona wirklich gelebt?, Die Weltbühne, December 31, 1929, No. 1, p. 15
- Catalogue entry for Vor Troja nichts Neues in the German National Library, retrieved January 29, 2014
- “The 3rd Academy Awards – 1931”. Oscars. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
- Kay, Jeremy. “‘Warcraft’ star Travis Fimmel to lead ‘All Quiet On The Western Front'”. ScreenDaily. MBI Ltd. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
- “All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)”. IMDb. IMDb.com, Inc. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
- “BBC Radio 3 – Drama on 3, All Quiet on the Western Front”. Bbc.co.uk. November 9, 2008. Retrieved February 7, 2013.
- “All Quiet on the Western Front Audiobook Review – Audiobook Jungle – Audiobook Reviews In All Genres”. audiobookjungle.com. Retrieved April 10, 2016.
Film Collectors Corner
Watch All Quiet on the Western Front Now – Instant Video on Internet Archive