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All Quiet on the Western Front VHS
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Lewis Milestone's adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war novel is a masterpiece whose power to disturb remains undiminished by the passage of time. The film stars Lew Ayres as the young Paul Bauman, who, along with a group of his teenaged classmates, are conscripted into the German army during WWI. The youths quickly realize that the patriotic hogwash they had been fed by their schoolmaster has absolutely has nothing to do with the horror they observe and experience on the front lines.
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Fidelity of video transfer is excellent and the audio is very good. It's a distinct improvement over the DVD. Keep in mind this is a 1930 B&W and any digital transfer will be constrained by 1930 film, camera and sound technologies, in addition to the condition of the source material used for the transfer.
The original German novel was serialized in a newspaper Nov-Dec 1928 with the book published in early 1929 (Im Westen nichts Neues; literally: In the West Nothing New). An English language translation was published very quickly after that followed by the Academy Award winning film in 1930. It is very important to remember the novel and film were created during the interbellum period between the World Wars, five years before the rise of the Nazi party to power in 1933 (which promptly banned the book and its sequel). The movie was banned by the German censors under pressure from the growing Nazi party, which had developed particularly ugly and violent methods of getting their way using the SA, aka Brown Shirts.
The movie follows the basics of the novel, with a class of boys in the German equivalent of high school receiving a lecture from their teacher about the patriotic glory of serving the Fatherland. It's reminiscent of a hoo-rah locker room pep talk. By the end, the entire class is moved by their teacher's exhortations to enlist en masse. Lost in the film and by most reading the book is the type of school, called a "gymnasium," the equivalent of a college preparatory high school. In Germany, the brightest students destined for the universities that passed the exams for it were sent to a gymnasium (this is NOT an athletic building). The others that continued their educations were sent to trade schools. These were the brightest, most intelligent young men, potentially the future of their country, launching themselves into what they believe will be a quick war with few losses. In reality, they're headed for the abyss of stalemated trench warfare.
The reality of being a common soldier in the German Army starts to sink in when they're going through basic infantry training. The reality of war starts to hit home as they're being transported toward the front, they see the wounded being evacuated, and they come under harassing artillery fire. From there it continues to devolve into the grim realities of WWI trench warfare, with shell shock, fighting with the rats for their food, watching fellow soldiers get blown apart by artillery or machine gunned, and the gradual realization they're little more than expendable cannon fodder as the number of fellow classmates being killed or wounded increases relentlessly. In the meantime, there are hints of the gnawing questions about what they're fighting for and why. One of their battle hardened soldiers puts it well when he states they ought to strip all the kings, politicians and generals down to their underwear, put them into an arena, and let them fight it out among themselves with clubs to determine the winner. This is contrasted with one of the students' home leave when he encounters men too old to fight and completely out of touch with battlefield realities and the horrific human cost, debating the correct strategy to win the war as armchair generals in his home town's gasthaus (pub). It's also contrasted with a visit to his school, where the teacher is exhorting his current class to enlist using the same patriotic rhetoric, and they're also clearly out of touch with the war's brutal realities.
Made only a couple years after "talkies" started replacing silent films, portions of the acting show vestigial silent era high drama over-acting. Sound effects are quite remarkable considering what they had to create, again just a couple years after the introduction of sound. Likewise, the special effects for small arms, machine guns, mortars and artillery are all real pyrotechnics. Scenes of this era shot using matte backgrounds are usually obvious if you look for them. I don't recall seeing any rotoscoping although I wasn't looking for it; that's normally detectable in vintage films. As would be expected, it's in the grainy B&W of its era, which accentuates its drab and weary bleakness. It was also made prior to 1934 when the strict, Draconian Hays Code could be enforced by the MPAA, which would have undoubtedly resulted in a number of scenes being shortened or cut entirely. The MPAA Hays Code not only set strict limits to language, sex and violence, it also controlled broader content and how it was portrayed compared to the code's [questionable] moral and ethical standards, and portraying an idealistic American way of life; it was de facto content censorship, including political and religious material, from 1934-1954 under Joseph Breen.
Five stars for a realistic portrayal of the extremely brutal and violent reality of war, physically and psychologically (given 1930 technical filming constraints), with WWI in particular. It faithfully shows the bonds that develop among the common soldiers to cope with unspeakable battlefield horror, and contrasts it with how insulated and completely ignorant those on the "home front" are of the horrors their front line soldiers are enduring. It is classed as one of the all-time classic "anti-war" films. It should give pause to consider the real human cost of armed conflict before drawing one's saber and going to war.
Overall, this release is a mixed bag for me. I like the digibook which is something I have always liked about blu rays and helps me to decide to double dip but I don't like the redundant standard dvd which makes the package unnecessarily bulky and is a waste as since I've upgraded to a Blu ray player, why the heck would I want a dvd? The picture quality is a vast improvement over my previous standard dvd version but the sound quality is extremely noisy with tons of hiss which does distract a lot. The BD-Live is useless because it really is just a vehicle for the studios to show you trailers of other films and this feature clearly has a lot of potential yet to be exploited. The silent version of the film is a nice bonus. Too bad the DTS 2 Channel Mono MA is so hissy during the spoken scenes and is certainly an area to be addressed before the inevitable next release.
Still, on the strength of the vastly improved picture quality and the silent film bonus, this is probably the best version of the film that is currently out there. Don't expect much from the spoken dialogue parts though.
Eric Maria Remarque, who wrote the novel the book is based on, served as a German soldier during WWI. The book was published in the late 1920s. When the Nazi's came to power in 1933, they did everything possible to suppress the book and smear the author, because the book doesn't idealize war. Remarque was forced to leave Germany and live in Switzerland. His younger sister, who remained in Germany, was sentenced to death and beheaded in 1943.
Remarque wrote a follow-up novel to "All Quiet on the Western Front" called "The Road Back" which examines the lives of the German soldiers who survived the war and their struggles to adjust themselves to a peacetime society, many of whom were suffering from PTSD-type symptoms, which were poorly understood at that time.
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