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3 - Le front sur scène et à l'écran / The Front on Stage and Screen

Struggling For or Against Memories: E.M. Remarque’s 1928 Novel All Quiet on the Western Front and its 1930 and 1980 Hollywood Transpositions

Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard
p. 135-152

Abstract

Le roman de Remarque A l’ouest rien de nouveau (All Quiet on the Western Front) et ses deux adaptations sont classés comme des œuvres antimilitaristes, ce qui leur a valu de souffrir de la censure officielle. La comparaison entre le roman autobiographique et les deux transpositions qui ont suivi, l’une qui se justifiait en 1930 par le succès international du roman en 1928, et l’autre par le souhait de répondre aux demandes de la Télévision en 1980, démontre que le sujet est essentiellement celui de la mémoire. La structure complexe des images enfouies dans la mémoire individuelle en dit long sur cette question. Cette étude s’efforce d’y apporter quelques éléments de réponse.

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Full text

  • 1 Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) was wounded five times, the last time very seriously. He joined th (...)
  • 2 Stephen Crane, Red Badge of Courage (1895): his reporter's style promotes descriptions of violent s (...)
  • 3 We are told about the distance between the narrator's hometown and the front line late in the novel (...)
  • 4 Lewis Milestone All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930, US; b&w., 138 min. Sc. George Abbott. Cast: L (...)
  • 5 Delbert Mann, All Quiet on the Western Front, 1980, US/GB, colour, 158 min., sc. Paul Monash. Cast: (...)

1E.M. Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front is a war novel1 that claims to be a testimony of the trench warfare in WWI by a young recruit. The narrative derives much of its coherence from the narrator’s neutrality. The naturalist descriptions echo Stephen Crane’s innovative style in his 1895 war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, while the insertion of ‘memory images’ illustrates the narrative with the vividness of a reporter’s snapshots.2 However, we miss the expected information about a well-defined period or place of action. We are told about the Russian front, suggesting the time of action is before 1917, and about the air from the sea which we infer is an indication about the front line in Belgium.3 And yet it is also an autobiographical novel: the information is given in the first person in the manner of a diary, the writer of the autobiography focusing on human bonding in a world characterised by the disappearance of all space-time landmarks. Novel and films are labelled ‘pacifist’ in tone and intention4 owing to the complete helplessness of the young recruits and their ruthless and impersonal destruction. However, the autobiographical voice, with shifts from "I" to "we," and its echo in the voice-over in the 1980 remake,5 raises the issue of memory. In 1930, the memories of war veterans were still fresh, but the novel expanded the capacity of audiences to empathise with the characters. Lewis Milestone’s screen adaptation was produced by Carl Laemmle on the belief that it would benefit from the latter’s wide readership in America and in Europe (Isenberg 132-135). The complex testimonials by the auto-biographer published ten years after the events are thus reflected in the subjective mirror of the readers’ and veterans’ own memory, which justifies a study of the complex overlapping of memory-images in the novel and the films.

The illusion of the real

  • 6 Just as for Remarque himself who joined the army in 1916, the war has already been going on when Ka (...)
  • 7 Dominique Sipière and Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris (eds.), Le Cinéma parle— Etudes sur le verbe et la v (...)

2The twelve chapters of Remarque’s novel use Paul’s remembrances of vivid images in order to make us imagine the action by illustrating it, but film images are not illustrations of a text. They obey different rules, since there is no narrator in a film and every frame is a direct representation of the event. In the novel, the action begins with a scene from the ‘ordinary’ life of a soldier, but the 1930 film stages schoolteacher Kantorek lecturing his students on their duty to their fatherland.6 The novel compels us to follow the narrator’s use of the present tense—as if he were writing his impressions simultaneously with the time in which he is living them; we then move backward into time with sequences which belong either to the immediate past or to the distant past when they enrolled. This opening chapter tells us in the present tense about peace since they are "five miles behind the front" and enjoying a rest: "We are satisfied and at peace" (Remarque 1). But the theme of death is brought in when we learn that their regiment has just spent fourteen days on the front line, and only half of the men have come back. After a quick series of stereotyped portraits, the greedy (Tjaden) and the cautious (Müller), the thinker (Albert Kropp) and the womaniser (Leer), the narrator introduces himself as their college mate Paul Baümer. The theme of youth is introduced—they are nineteen—along with the changes which their new life has brought. They have given up the ways of the educated world and learnt to pay attention to the needs of their bodies: after having eaten their meal, three of them sit in a field and enjoy long talks. They share an earlier memory when they were Kantorek’s students. While the 1980 version is faithful to this introduction of the young men’s present life at peace behind the lines in summertime, nothing of the sort is found in the 1930 film. The opening sequence depicts someone opening a door and framing an enthused postman who announces that he has been called to join the army, and then the camera cuts to several shots of regiments briskly marching away through the city under the applause of a raving crowd. They remain visible in the background through the open windows of a classroom—and audible as they sing gaily a national hymn—while in the foreground a large group of students are seated. The teacher’s voice is barely audible but soon becomes more distinct and finally grows unbearably loud. This denotes the interest for the new sound technology of the still quite recent talkies.7 We draw closer as the camera cuts to close-shots of Kantorek’s hallucinated gaze staring at the young men under his influence.

3The two introductions use different means to compel us to cross the threshold of fiction in order to enter the present of the protagonists while we forget about our own present. The scene of the young men enjoying their talk is highly incongruous since they are actually seated on moveable latrines and exchange comments in the vein of the "latrine-rumour" of "regimental gossip-shop and common-rooms" (Remarque 9), the intimacy of polite society having become quite obsolete. A change in the conventions of civilian life also takes place, but in a more ominous tone. The narrator comments: "these teachers always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets," after depicting Kantorek as he saw him on that day: "I can see him now, as he used to glare at us through his spectacles and say in a moving voice: "Won’t you join up, Comrades? " (Remarque 11).

  • 8 All Quiet on the Western Front, 1980, US/GB, 158 min., colour. Director Delbert Mann, script Paul M (...)

4Moreover, both introductory scenes bear a pacifist message: the novel depicts "peace" with the quiet beauty of the fields where red field poppies and butterflies are icons of the values of a natural life. The narrator who remembers the scene explicitly emphasizes the perversity of his schoolteacher Kantorek by the qualifier "a moving voice." His disquieting portrait in the film emphasizes the transgression of the rules of his profession by allowing himself to be madly infatuated with pictures of glorious heroes with which he contaminates his pupils’ minds. In Milestone’s film, the students turn crazy and send their books flying in the air while repeating the hymn in the street. But we know better because we can see the chaos inside the classroom is put in parallel by the soldiers marching outside as if they were automatons. We cannot miss the tragedy of ignorant men being deceived by promises of personal glory in order to serve as ‘cannon-fodder.’ Moreover, the reader who is familiar with WWI symbols will see an ominous sign in the red poppies of the embedding scene since they are the emblems for the dead in WWI cemeteries. As to the butterfly, the image is repeated in the novel as a personal emblem for Paul Baümer himself who is a butterfly lover. In his room at home, he has a frame with his butterfly collection. In Milestone’s film, this emblem is used to give a devastating sense of waste to Paul Baümer’s death by its brutal intrusion of in a moment of joy—when reaching out of his entrenched position for a butterfly he becomes a target for a French sniper who kills him. Delbert Mann’s remake of 1980 changed the butterfly for a twittering bird, and was criticized for it.8 And yet the source text tells us: "I stand up" (Remarque 295), which is what the character does in the 1980 remake, thus becoming a target above the trenches. The portrait of an adult in full possession of his free mind is symbolised by this line, which the proffered hand in the 1930 film only suggests.

5In the novel, it is with a flashback that the classroom scene is introduced. The text begins with a memory image of Kantorek: "I can see him now." The portrait is retrieved from a past that is over a year old and inserted within the image of the pastoral scene. Milestone also uses flashbacks later on in the film, and such memory images are superimposed upon the scene in the present. The last shot of the film addresses our own memory as viewers thanks to the reprise of an earlier shot of the boys marching off and turning round to gaze at us, i.e. at the camera. This haunting picture is superimposed upon the final shot of a military cemetery. The film thus uses our ‘suspended disbelief’ in the reality of images in the fiction. Actually, just as we believe in the character’s descriptions because they are the fruit of the autobiographical testimony of a witness, so do we believe in the truth of images—here the boys staring at us—as reliable witnesses because we read them as photographic traces of the real. There is a striking similitude between the two witnesses, the auto-biographer and the camera-eye in the creation of the illusion of reality.

Newsreel and war film

  • 9 Fenton was commissioned by Queen Victoria to photograph the Crimean war in order to pacify public o (...)

6And yet since the invention of photography, images have been thought more reliable than narrative testimonies. This goes back to the beginnings of photography, as the example of Fenton’s photographs shows.9 The belief that the camera was only a mechanical recording instrument became a natural quality of films, in particular in newsreels (Isenberg 62). A short analysis of the newsreels in the 1920s shows that depiction of war memories in Milestone’s film are immune to doubt for several reasons. The newsreel was understood as a straightforward record of an event as well as a genre with its own rules.

Newsreels of war events tended to be shots of Great Men doing Great Things […], actual Signal Corps combat footage […], scenes of soldier life behind the lines, or staged fakes of battles (Isenberg 64).

  • 10 Emmanuel Cohen, "The Business of International News by Motion Pictures," Annals of the American Aca (...)
  • 11 To Griffith the spectacle of the battle of Ypres which he attended was 'déjà vu': "All these things (...)

7The newsreel was already well institutionalised by 1926 in almost 90 per cent of all American theatres. With the advent of the synchronous sound film in 1928, the newsreels "were accepted by press and public alike as a form of journalism" (Isenberg 64). And yet, with sound, elements of dramatization such as moods of gaiety, or gloom, had been added to screen ‘reality,’ while commentators saw the news film "as the greatest historian of all," and "the closest approach to the ideal of genuine freedom of the press."10 The newsreel is close to the adventure film by the restriction of events to a tale devoted to a hero, and the use of emphasis to qualify the exceptional moral qualities of the protagonist. Another emotional appeal is the exotic depiction of life behind the lines, along with the staging of fake battles.11 One better understands the necessity of self-definition which appears in the prologue of the novel and its reprise in the two films. These lines also attempt to avoid censorship by proclaiming the truth of their testimony from lived experience:

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 shells, were destroyed by the war. (Prologue of the novel).

  • 12 Both movie prologues read: "this story is neither an accusation not a confession and, least of all (...)
  • 13 George Abbot, "All Quiet on the Western Front," 1929, MOMA. Scripts labelled 'Dialog Cutting Contin (...)

8The two film prologues replace "this book" with "this story.".12 The point of view shifts from the form of experience which is offered, i.e. the personal enjoyment of reading, to the narrative content, as if the film were merely a transparent mirror. The film prologue also logically omits "to be," and its implicit reference to the reading performance "to be read as," i.e. reading as interpretation and distancing from the story. Moreover, war is personified: "have escaped shells" becomes "have escaped its shells." The key words are "accusation," "confession," or "adventure," as opposed to "tell of." However it is noticeable that the dramatic progression of George Abbott’s script13 for the black and white film sustains our interest by steadily moving away from the banal to the tragic in the story of the young men’s lives. We follow them from their college life to the military camp and then to the battle field; the hero’s experience of the hospital (Remarque 239-269) is moved forward to explain why he goes on leave back home (Remarque 151-185). The result is that his return to his regiment and the experience of the near destruction of the 2nd company is tied with the statement that one went home only to feel out of place and wish to get back to trench life again. In the film he then looks for Kat, but only to carry him on his shoulders back to the infirmary, where he realizes the plane above them has shot him dead. The last sequence shows Paul’s ultimate solitude. By giving a classical dramatic progression to the action, major themes such as innocence vs experience, culture vs nature, youth vs maturity, tend to appear as possible interpretations of the events, which nuances the main message of meaningless sacrifice: "a generation of men who […] were destroyed by the war." Furthermore, the film restricts the criticism of war to scenes of violent battle and offers moments of respite suggesting the values of peace. The three friends meet girls on the other side of the canal, an episode which emphasizes the value of peace while the indictment of the war is redirected in their conversation against fatality (Remarque 143-151).

9Remarque’s text and the two films, though aiming at a revelation of historical events, are nevertheless different from the newsreel since, instead of Great Men and Great Events, the plot is devoted to ordinary men performing un-glorious tasks such as putting barbed wire at night along the enemy trenches. Instead of heroic deeds, we are told about absence of action, venting one’s anger on the destruction of rats and lice, or availing oneself of any sort of food and a minimum of comfort with hay mattresses. As to imitation of trench footage, it is rendered in the films by performing the most urgent task which is to stay alive by developing trench survival skills: among these, escaping the shells by learning to identify them by their sound, or burying one’s body in earth. The sudden shedding of bright light with rockets gives the night-scenes a lurid and lethal atmosphere. It might be argued that the newsreel genre is present with staged fakes of battles, but nonetheless we are given extremely violent and efficient sequences such as when the French launch an attack while Paul is trapped alone in a deep hole caused by the explosion of shells. This scene in the 1930 film has become a model of the war film genre, and has been faithfully transcribed in the 1980 remake, just as footage from William Wellman’s 1927 Wings has "found its way" into several other films showing aerial action (Isenberg 122-124). We witness the moment when Paul kills a man with his dagger. Because he remains with him in the shell-hole all night, Paul suffers a psychological crisis: he first assists him as the bleeding man agonizes, and once the latter is dead, he feels guilt. He even needs to identify the French soldier thanks to his papers, and we are given the latter’s name, family and profession. The following day, Paul joins his regiment and confesses that he has killed a man. He is helped by his comrades to regain self-control and manages to repeat their motto "war is war" (Remarque 209-229). Though the dying man’s identity remains French in the Hollywood films, concern for the American viewers is noteworthy in some changes—as when the French (Remarque 203; 205) become the British in the dialogues.

Naturalist aesthetics

  • 14 The framing of the tyrant overlooking the crowd and the high angle to express excess of power is Ei (...)

10Despite the significant changes in the overall timeline of the sequence of events which seem to create a degree of coherence, the 1930 script nevertheless conveys the absurdity of such events by the inner structure of the scenes. The naturalism which is characteristic of the source novel is transcribed in the training camp scenes in which Himmelstoss seems to be enjoying an excess of zeal when achieving the necessary transformation of civilians into disciplined soldiers. The narrator’s voice is delegated to Kat who is given a diatribe on authority. "The army is based on that; one man must always have power over the other. The mischief is merely that each one has much too much power" (Remarque 44). This general statement comes after a typically Darwinian approach of man’s nature as Kat tries to prove that "in himself man is essentially a beast" who follows his thirst for power. The flashback shows the men "marching back from the parade-ground dog-tired." They are told to sing, but they "sing spiritlessly" and are ordered for another hour’s drill. When they sing the second time they do it much better. While Kat argues in the novel that this is a proof of his theory on man’s thirst for power, the film shows that the men meet the challenge; the narrator’s comment is laconic: "We had become successful students of his method" (Remarque 48-49). The boys’ training ends with a military review. Framing in the foreground the shoulders of officers on horseback, the camera shows the infantry regiment from a high angle, which emphasizes the sense of their absolute power over their men14 and Himmelstoss is distinguished. In the 1980 remake, we see Himmelstoss—of all men!—being rewarded with a medal for his authority. As for the review, it is performed by a general who stands to make a speech from his glorious convertible: the scene has a definitely Hitlerian ring to it. In the novel there is a military review as well, though later, when the Kaiser comes, but there is no rewarding of Himmelstoss; rather this launches a long argument between the friends about the origins of the war and who benefits from it (Remarque 202-207), a criticism which is transposed in the film by the irony of a public gesture ruining the value of military medals. This translation of an ironical effect from a dialogue into a gesture which is a political blunder, is typical of the transposition of ideas into images by cinema.

Shell-shock and repressed trauma

  • 15 Karl Abraham tells of a soldier who was wounded in 1914, but escaped from the infirmary to join the (...)

11The 1930 film documents shell-shock traumas, but condenses the storyline by showing as Paul’s own companions the young men who come in later—helpless sixteen-year-old recruits sent to replace the heavy losses of the regiment (Remarque 108). They are confined for days and nights in their huts underground. The camera frames a backdrop of pelting rain in the door opening upon the trench and cuts to explosions above in the no man’s land. The violent pounding causes some rafters to collapse with a crash, but the complaints are mostly due to the sound continuum: a close-shot shows a boy protecting his ears. The symptoms of shell-shock are pointed out by the constant groaning of another, the shrieks and calls for relief, and fits of trembling which all indicate nervous breakdowns. Two of them escape into the trench but one of them is badly wounded: it is Kemmerich whom they visit later (Remarque 13-18, 27-32). The narrator’s storytelling pays great attention to the present violence of sensations and shows the growing disappearance of space time landmarks. When the inside of the hut is mistaken for the lethal no-man’s-land and the scared recruit tries to escape from the living nightmare, the scene is more than a medical document, it contributes to the general experience of psychic damage which the prologue introduces as the destruction of a generation. The difference between a perfectly sane subject such as Paul and neurotic young men who cannot stand the violence of the experience is thus underscored.15 This draws our attention to the reality of war as the destruction of human bodies. It also emphasizes the difference between the inhibition of memories which is necessary for a sane person in order to remain in control of the symbolic order provided by language, and the neuroses which become uncontrollable.

12The relationship between the young men and their officer Himmelstoss is used in the novel to make this clear: because he has shown sadistic delight in inflicting upon them extreme punishment when it was clear they had done their best, he is clearly in the wrong. The 1980 film shows him ordering the recruits to lie with their face down in the mud, and also torturing Paul at night, while the 1930 film shows his sadism by the repetition of drills such as diving on their belly in the mud field and instantly jumping to their feet with a heavy and burdensome equipment. When they are told they will be sent to the front on the next day, they take their revenge on him by giving him a beating at night: they laugh and enjoy themselves (Remarque 48-50). In the novel the ‘retaliation’ cure is introduced by a first chat between the soldiers behind the lines, which shows the importance of linguistic control on the part of the victims of an excessive use of cruel treatment (Remarque 43-44). When a letter comes from Kantorek, his calling them "young heroes" is taken with derision (Remarque 45). The chat is resumed later and punctuates the scenes of action with moments of reasoning which end in laughter and oblivion (76-80, 199-207). Such are the linguistic clues which are given to us about the perfectly normal young men who are sent to the front; the night spent by three boys with nice young girls (Remarque 141-151) also serves to confirm this, sexuality being one of Freud and Karl Abraham’s explanations for neuroses (Abraham 54).

Reminiscences

13The narrator distinguishes between the use of language to keep their self-control and the indelible nature of memories however deeply repressed they might be.

The terror of the front sinks deep down when we turn our back upon it; we make grim, coarse jests about it, when a man dies, then we say he has nipped off his turd […] But we do not forget. We don’t act like that because we are in good humour […] otherwise we should go to pieces […] we cannot hold out much longer; our humour becomes more bitter every month (Remarque 140).

14In the novel there are signs of forgotten memories surfacing as unwonted reminiscences (Remarque 43-44). There is an interesting example of the surfacing of personal reminiscences by the narrator auto-biographer just before Himmelstoss’s arrival on the front is suddenly announced (Remarque 45). The return of the repressed image of his sadistic treatment at the training camp is depicted first as a memory and then materializes by his visit to their group. The passage actually shows a fracture in the enunciation:

A picture comes before me. Burning midday in the barrack-yard. The heat hangs over the square […] O dark, musty platoon huts, with the iron bedsteads […] Katczinsky paints it all in lively colours. What would we not give to be able to return to it! (Remarque 41-42)

15It begins with a subjective memory of two different places in which Paul has enjoyed friendship with ‘buddies.’ The paragraphs follow one another in a fragmented set of images which overlap, and the cluster of reminiscences of human bondage collapses images from the life of the men inside the barracks with images from their life inside the underground huts which are built inside the trenches. When the conversation turns to drill, the shift from Paul’s remembered scene to the source of these images, Kat’s voice painting "it" is left linguistically un-marked, while the pronoun "it" refers to the male friendship which they experience. We are aware that Paul is remembering the barracks of his training camp before he met Kat while listening to Kat describing his own experience of other military camps; superimposed upon these images are those of their common huts in the trenches. The narrator adds: "farther back than that our thoughts dare no go," before shifting to a comic scene of drill that Kropp recalls from their first training under Himmelstoss. The space-time qualifier "farther" denotes the incapacitating suffering of trauma. It seems that the choice of the autobiographical mode gives an outlet for the retrieving of such repressed images. The following examples show the power of the brief but detailed information by which the novel provides vivid illustration like photographic documents of wounded men, some of which the French call "gueules cassées":

We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole […] we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces […] the sun goes down, night comes, the shells whine, life is at an end (Remarque 134).

  • 16 The effect of trench mortars is so strong that men are literally "blown out of their clothes": “a n (...)

16The narrator actually scatters such descriptions from the middle of the novel with a repetitive cruelty and achieves a rising intensity of violence16 which reaches a climax in the night and day he spends with the French soldier whom he kills in self-defence (Remarque 209-225).

17As the images of the destruction of human bodies grow more and more scary, different images of peace are also inserted in the text. For example, the autobiographical narrator analyses memories which come to him from days of peace. Instead of close ups of maimed faces and bodies, these are described as if they were out of reach, in a world in which he no longer belongs, unless they act as images of a world after death.

Behind the meadows behind our town there stands a line of old poplars by a stream […] They are soundless apparitions that speak to me, with looks and gestures silently, without any word—and it is the alarm of their silence that forces me to lay hold of my sleeve and my rifle lest I should abandon myself to the liberation and allurement in which my body would dilate and gently pass away into the still forces that lie behind these things. (Remarque 120)

  • 17 The movies introduced synchronous sound around 1928. The lack of dialogue as characters' lips were (...)
  • 18 War poems refer to exposure in the sense of being exposed to the gunfire across the no man's land w (...)

18The moment of this recollection, marked by the repetition of "behind," and by the broken syntax "speak to me, with looks and gestures silently," is introduced by an event in the present: Paul is on sentry and stares into the darkness and sees mists rising out of the craters caused by exploding shells. Then the text reads: the parachute-lights soar upwards—and I see a picture, a summer evening" (Remarque 118-119). In this moment, the present of the diary-like narration of succeeding events is literally torn apart by the ‘collage’ of another image from another time sequence; he adds "the image is alarmingly near; it touches me before it dissolves in the light of the next star-shell" (Remarque 119). As to the stillness and the silence of the image, it suggests a reminiscence of cinema as it used to be until two years before the film itself was shot, and was when the novel was written, I mean silent cinema.17 In such moments, the two levels of time, the present of the character’s perceptions, and the past time which is re-inserted in this present, overlap while the implicit time of writing which characterizes autobiographical fiction blends with the present act of our reading. The collapsing of linear time is not only a trait of the character’s psychological trauma but becomes our own, and the stillness of the image reads as a metaphor of photographic exposure.18

Colour and reality effect

  • 19 Pierre Arbus, "Les couleurs de la guerre," in R.Costa de Beauregard, dir. Cinéma et couleur-Film an (...)
  • 20 Already in one of the major Technicolor films by Rouben Mamoulian, Blood and Sand, a high angle on (...)

19When, after viewing the black and white 1930 film, one watches the 1980 remake in colour, an odd sense of proximity is created by the sense of colour. Sepia reddish hues are dominant as the grey blue of the French "bleu horizon" uniforms is barely distinguishable from the greenish brown of the German ones. The off-screen voice-over addresses us in the present tense but the words do not give us any factual information, rather, just as they do in the novel, the monologue depicts Paul’s inner feelings and thoughts at the very moment of the onscreen action. The camera then cuts to scenes from other places where his mind wanders. He then returns to the present by opening his eyes, which signals briefly the shift from a past or an imaginary scene into the time of action. The meeting with the French girls takes place in the present, but earlier the theme of love has been introduced by a scene of romance which passes off either as a reminiscence or an imaginary dream. Most of Milestone’s dramatic structure being otherwise identifiable, it is as if we had moved from a world of archives with their wealth of information in black and white into our own everyday coloured lives. The practice of newsreels in black and white is usually thought to be the reason why we expect archives, believed to be authentic images taken on the spot, to be in black and white as well.19 Distance between the viewer and the world of fiction is modified by the use of colour in images not only in terms of realism, but also from an ideological point of view since we better re-appropriate a symbolical reference when the images are in black and white. The contrary is also true as examples show: the spare use of blood red in the 1980 film allows a symbolical reading of the colour in the death of the French soldier. A high camera angle frames his dead body in medium shot, and his unbuttoned blue coat discloses his white shirt which bears the large red stain of his bleeding chest in a telling evocation of the French flag. Paul’s cleaning his hand from the blood of his enemy has already given the colour red a contextual meaning, though the dark ill-lit sky does not allow any colour effect to appear then. Later, as Kat is badly wounded and Paul heaves his body upon his shoulders, a blood red stain is made visible. To us, the stain signifies his impending death, making Paul’s endeavour to save him both tragically doomed but also symbolic of the bonding between the two friends.20

  • 21 Alexander Bakshy is introduced to readers of film criticism by Harry Alan Potamkin in 1927 as a Rus (...)
  • 22 Alexander Bakshy, "All Quiet on the Western Front," The Nation, June II, 1930, Kauffmann, 235-236).

20And yet an influential critic disagreed with the success of the novel and the film at the time, and his comments provide us with useful points for discussion of differences in reception. Alexander Bakshy21 writes in 1930 that the novel "is not a great literary masterpiece,"22 suggesting that the screening of this bestseller was not to his taste. About the realistic descriptions of scenes he finds that "nearly every page of the book required a special focusing of imagination in order to bring out in clear relief the episodes and facts that stud the author’s guileless and inarticulate prose" (Kauffmann 235). He values the "interest and importance of the story as a human document." The novel speaks courageously and vividly of "the sheer horror of war—of man’s relapse into bestiality with its frenzy of fear and rage, of his physical suffering and moral prostration." Bakhsy then turns to the film and recognizes that it is "a terrifying document that reveals the carnage of war with staggering force" (Kauffmann 236). He observes that battle scenes have been represented already in many pictures, and adds that "All Quiet surpasses them all in the stark horror and madness of the business of fighting." He indicates the contrast with gentler moods and comic scenes, but insists that "the predominant impression is that of life in the raw, of existence stripped of all adornments and bared to the bone," and concludes that the film "is not so much the tragedy of war as its callous bestiality," adding "one is staggered, and shaken, and almost ready to sob, but one is not really thrilled;" he also comments on Milestone’s "technical superiority of cinematic craftsmanship."

21As suggested earlier, there was a public consensus about war fiction on screen in the 1930s; the critic is representative of the conception of Hollywood cinema in his days. He had expected to be "thrilled" by both works, as in an adventure story. He complains that the reading calls for his own imagination to create the image, a point which we have seen is essential since only the active participation of our imagination can make us share the complex web of images which are present in the novel. He complains that "life in the raw" is the general impression, a major feature of naturalism in fiction, along with the depiction of war as "bestiality," an effect which validates our sense of the authenticity of the characters. But the complex issue of remembrance which novel and both films are about quite escapes his notice.

Conclusion

22To go one step further by way of conclusion, the pervasive tearing to shreds of bodies as well as landscapes is retrieved by the dismembering of syntax, sentences disappearing when bare enumeration is given as the text progresses towards its end. The reporter’s rhetoric itself becomes fragmentary, when the images of the present collapse with images from the past, either distant or immediate: "Shells, gas cloud, and flotillas of tanks—Shattering, corroding, death. Dysentry, influenza, typhus­­—scalding, choking, death" (Remarque 283). The portraits of the characters are reduced to fragmentary actions as in "There is Tjaden, there is Müller blowing his nose, and there are Kat and Kropp" (Remarque 200). The signifier "there is" makes a statement about the ultimate reality of war, presence or absence. Already with the description of Kemmerich’s gradual decay very early in the novel, i.e. a warning which both films also insert early in the world they depict, the ultimate reality of war is given in such terms: the presence or absence of friends is the visualization of another force at work, the absence or presence of Death itself "at work from within." During Paul’s first visit to Kemmerich, he imagines death at work "under the skin," and observes how "his features have become uncertain and faint, like a photographic plate from which two pictures have been taken" (Remarque 14-15). Paul then imagines how the dead boy’s "nails will continue to grow like lean fantastic cellar-plants long after Kemmerich breathes no more" (Remarque 14-15). But the same Paul also recognizes the presence of Death because "we have seen them now hundreds of times," which inscribes the scene within a set of memories of dead soldiers; the image of the growing nails can only refer to the lack of coffins which caused the boys’ bodies to be buried in the earth. The temptation of the fantastic is inscribed in this introductory scene, and rejected in the following death scenes. The grotesque iconography of Death is later introduced with an odd character who is in the same hospital room as Paul and Albert, but here too the evocation of another literary genre only serves to define the naturalist rhetoric bent upon an accurate rendering of reality. In the novel, the odd character is actually a perfectly sane husband who, despite his belly wound, is able to make love to his visiting wife under the watch of the other patients. The mise-en-scène of human reality and human bondage is remarkable in that scene (Remarque 264-268).

23Concerning the colour remake, it is noticeable that the slowing of the tempo in drills, marches, or attacks is barely compensated by colour. The softening of features expressing a greater sensitiveness and powerlessness (Richard Thomas) vs the stern features and thoughtful expression of the impressive first actor (Lew Ayres) is also disappointing, and yet, the general sense of absurdity is conveyed. Scenes of chaos such as the horses gone mad with fear and suffering in the novel (Remarque 62-64) are screened with great violence, and the rendering of explosions as well as gas poisoning is brought nearer to us by colour. As for the classical editing of close shots on details along with long shots of soldiers racing from left to right for the French and from right to left for the Germans, it achieves a similar rendering of senseless violence. The shots of bodies either collapsing, or shooting in the air, or caught in a tangle of barbed wire, are short glimpses though no accelerated motion is used. They include subliminal shots of fragments of bodies which help to better perceive the ultimate destruction of identifiable things. The general fragmentation of silhouettes, and more generally the shattering of forms into unrecognizable shapelessness, which is a dominant characteristic of the novel’s descriptions, is a major feature which both films have transposed into cinematographic expressivity. What the novel retains as an essential achievement however, is the experience of timelessness which the disappearance of time-space conventions causes. Only the stillness of death on the screen can capture the effect of the telling metaphor of earth and rain used by the narrator: "Our hands are earth, our bodies clay and our eyes pools of rain. We do not know whether we still live" (Remarque 287).

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Bibliography

Abraham, Karl, "Zur Psychoanalyse der Kriegsneurosen", Zur Psychoanalyse der Kriegsneurosen, Wien, 1919. French tr. Ilse Barance, "Contribution à la psychanalyse des névroses de guerre", in Sigmund Freud, Sandor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Sur les névroses de guerre [1965], Paris: Payot, 2010, 43-60.

Costa de Beauregard, Raphaëlle (ed.), Cinéma et couleur-Film and Colour, Paris: Michel Houdiard Editeur, 2009.

Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford: O.U.P., 1975.

Isenberg, Michael I., War on Film—The American Cinema and World War I, 1914-1941, London & Toronto: Associated University Press, 1981.

Kauffmann, Stanley American Film Criticism—From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane—An Anthology, New York: Liveright, 1972.

Remarque, Erich Maria, Im Western Nichts Neues, Verlag, 1928.

Sipière, Dominique and Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris (eds), Le Cinéma parle — Etudes sur le verbe et la voix dans le cinéma anglophone, Bulletin du CICLAHO, n°6, Paris: Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, 2012.

Taylor, Paul, All Quiet on the Western Front, republished by TimeOut Film Guide, ed. John Pym, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004

Wheen, A. W., All Quiet on the Western Front, English tr. from Remarque’s novel [1929], New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.

Filmography

Mann, Delbert, director, All Quiet on the Western Front, 1980, US/GB, colour, 158 min., scenario: Paul Monash, cast: Richard Thomas, Ernest Borgnine.

Milestone, Lewis, director, All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930, US, b/w., 140 min., producer Universal, Carl Laemmle jr., scenario: George Abbott, cast: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim.

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Notes

1 Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) was wounded five times, the last time very seriously. He joined the front in 1916 and his first war novel, Im Western Nichts Neues was published in German in 1928. It was translated into English by A. W. Wheen in 1929, into French by A.Hella & O. Bournac the same year.

2 Stephen Crane, Red Badge of Courage (1895): his reporter's style promotes descriptions of violent sensations and concrete situations, but uses the third person narration and an anonymous character. Ernest Hemingway's well-known theory that a writer can only create fiction out of his personal experience is characteristic of two of his war novels which are contemporary with Erich Maria Remarque's, The Sun also Rises (1928) and A Farewell to Arms (1929).

3 We are told about the distance between the narrator's hometown and the front line late in the novel "our own peasants in Fiesland," Remarque, 190; "we travel for several days," Remarque, ch. 9, 199; "we reach Herbesthal," ch.10, 249. "It was winter when I came up […] now the trees are green again" suggests the passing of a year, ch.11, 271. In this penultimate chapter we learn that it is summer 1918; it describes the death of all Paul's comrades, in keeping with the fact that "the German army had destroyed itself by attacking successfully," Fussell, 18.

4 Lewis Milestone All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930, US; b&w., 138 min. Sc. George Abbott. Cast: Lew Ayres. "Critics have been unanimous in conceding that All Quiet on the Western Front was the finest American picture made about World War I […] The result is usually ranked with the German G. W. Pabst's Westfront 1918, also released in 1930, as the best pacifist film of war" (Isenberg 133).

5 Delbert Mann, All Quiet on the Western Front, 1980, US/GB, colour, 158 min., sc. Paul Monash. Cast: Richard Thomas.

6 Just as for Remarque himself who joined the army in 1916, the war has already been going on when Kantorek describes the beauty of doing one's duty on the battlefield.

7 Dominique Sipière and Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris (eds.), Le Cinéma parle— Etudes sur le verbe et la voix dans le cinéma anglophone, Bulletin du CICLAHO, n°6, Paris: Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, 2012.

8 All Quiet on the Western Front, 1980, US/GB, 158 min., colour. Director Delbert Mann, script Paul Monash, cast: American actors Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine. According to Paul Taylor, the director attempted to make the film relevant to post-Vietnam, but eventually could not resist the impact of Remarque's novel and Milestone's film, Taylor, 26.

9 Fenton was commissioned by Queen Victoria to photograph the Crimean war in order to pacify public opinion. 312 photographs were exhibited in London in 1855, never showing wounded or dead soldiers or destruction of cities. This is known as the first instance of the power of the photographic image to influence a political campaign. Pierre Bonhomme, "Souveraine Angleterre"—Introduction to the Catalogue of the Exhibition Souveraine Angleterre-L’âge d’or de la photographie britannique, Paris: Mission du patrimoine photographique, 1996, 6.

10 Emmanuel Cohen, "The Business of International News by Motion Pictures," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 128 (November 1926):74-78; Louis R. Reid, "Amusement: Radio and Movies," America Now, 34 (Isenberg 64). See also Raymond Fielding, The American Newsreel—1911-1967, Norma, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

11 To Griffith the spectacle of the battle of Ypres which he attended was 'déjà vu': "All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene," Carr, "Griffith, Maker of Battle Scenes, Sees real War," Isenberg 63. I have as yet been unable to trace the source for this quote.

12 Both movie prologues read: "this story is neither an accusation not 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 …"

13 George Abbot, "All Quiet on the Western Front," 1929, MOMA. Scripts labelled 'Dialog Cutting Continuity' are the most desirable, since they are taken from the final print itself, Isenberg, 261.

14 The framing of the tyrant overlooking the crowd and the high angle to express excess of power is Eisenstein's suggestion in Ivan the terrible and has become a classical mode of expression. Milestone uses it in this shot as a type of framing which has already become a part of the viewer's expectations.

15 Karl Abraham tells of a soldier who was wounded in 1914, but escaped from the infirmary to join the front where he was wounded again twice. On his return, he remains unconscious and buried for two days. Even then he is neither depressed, nor excited or given to shaking and shrieking. Another soldier falls in a shell-hole at night without being wounded, but soon shows symptoms of deep neurosis. Karl Abraham "Zur Psychoanalyse der Kriegsneurosen," communication au Ve Congrès international de psychanalyse de Budapest, le 28 septembre 1918, publié dans Zur Psychoanalyse der Kriegsneurosen, Wien, 1919. Tr. française Ilse Barance, "Contribution à la psychanalsye des névroses de guerre, " in Sigmund Freud, Sandor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Sur les névroses de guerre, 45-60. The shameful treatment of two soldiers suffering from incontinence by Himmelstoss is another example in the novel of war neurosis.

16 The effect of trench mortars is so strong that men are literally "blown out of their clothes": “a naked solider is squatting in the fork of a tree, he still has his helmet on, otherwise he is entirely unclad. There is only half of him sitting up there, the top half, the legs are missing," Remarque, 208. The description in its very excess of details is grotesque to the point of appearing unbearably gore. One cannot but believe the image, and it haunts us like a nightmare.

17 The movies introduced synchronous sound around 1928. The lack of dialogue as characters' lips were seen moving had been perceived as silence despite the use from the very beginning of cinema of sound for realistic effects as well as music. Remarque's knowledge of cinema belongs to this period. In Jean Renoir's contemporary short silent The Little Match-Girl (1928), the heroine scratches a match at night and a light appears with an image on the black screen of the night. The visuals in Renoir's contemporary film strongly suggest a personal reminiscence from the parachute-lights on the front line in a film where several other images from Renoir's personal experience are also retrieved.

18 War poems refer to exposure in the sense of being exposed to the gunfire across the no man's land when the soldiers jump out from their trench and attempt to invade the enemy trench before being forced—if unscathed—to retreat into their own trench. The same term signifies either the sensitive membrane of the film in the camera and Henry James's 'sensitive membrane,' the soldier's eye, but in trench warfare exposure also means facing death as with a firing squad. On sensuous immediacy and trench warfare, see Fussell, 291-296 and ff.

19 Pierre Arbus, "Les couleurs de la guerre," in R.Costa de Beauregard, dir. Cinéma et couleur-Film and Colour, 73-80. One can also quote the use of black and white signifying authentic archives even though these are fakes in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991).

20 Already in one of the major Technicolor films by Rouben Mamoulian, Blood and Sand, a high angle on a red stain in the arena achieves the shift from realism to symbolism. See also Jean-Marie Lecomte, "The Genesis and Poetics of Early Technicolor voice (1929-1935)", R.Costa de Beauregard, dir., Cinéma et couleur-Film and Colour, 171-183.

21 Alexander Bakshy is introduced to readers of film criticism by Harry Alan Potamkin in 1927 as a Russian-English critic. He published The Kinematograph as Art in The Drama (Chicago) in 1916 and a volume The Path of the Russian Stage in 1918. He insisted on the specificity of cinema as art, and on cinema pantomime and valued Léger's Ballet mécanique; he is compared to Vachel Lindsay but has a better understanding of cinema as rhythm, relationship of minor to major actions and climax. Potamkin ends by saying that Bakshy's criticism is” immediately convertible into practice." Harry Alan Potampkin, "Alexander Bakshy," National Board of Review Magazine, September 1927, Kauffmann 191-193.

22 Alexander Bakshy, "All Quiet on the Western Front," The Nation, June II, 1930, Kauffmann, 235-236).

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References

Bibliographical reference

Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard, « Struggling For or Against Memories: E.M. Remarque’s 1928 Novel All Quiet on the Western Front and its 1930 and 1980 Hollywood Transpositions », Caliban, 53 | 2015, 135-152.

Electronic reference

Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard, « Struggling For or Against Memories: E.M. Remarque’s 1928 Novel All Quiet on the Western Front and its 1930 and 1980 Hollywood Transpositions », Caliban [Online], 53 | 2015, Online since 24 August 2015, connection on 07 December 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/1016 ; DOI : 10.4000/caliban.1016

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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