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Loud message from 1930s

This article is over 18 years, 2 months old
New restoration of the classic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front
Issue 1876

EARLY NOVEMBER with the Remembrance industry in full swing is an awkward time for us.

Suddenly it becomes obligatory to wear a poppy to read the TV weather report and New Labour politicians are not allowed out in public without their paper flower of war.

Our problem is that whilst we might want to show sympathy for the women and men who fought the wars, we don’t want to be co-opted into the war party that glorifies them. This makes the release of a restored print of the film All Quiet on the Western Front all the more timely.

It might be 73 years old but it is a film of undiminished power and its message is scarily relevant in the era of Bush and Blair.

It tells the story of Paul Baumer, a young idealist who enlists to fight for Kaiser and country in the First World War.

We follow Baumer’s relentless descent into the nightmare of trench warfare where soldiers ‘eat and sleep with death’.

All this is told in a series of images culminating in what for me is one of the single most powerful scenes in cinema history when ‘our hero’ bayonets a French soldier.

They both tumble into a bomb crater and Baumer is forced to witness up close and personal the man he skewered dying slowly and agonisingly. It becomes an almost impossibly moving enactment of the famous socialist slogan that ‘a bayonet is a weapon with a worker on both ends’.

All Quiet on the Western Front is usually described as a pacifist film, but in truth it is actually a sustained attack on New Labour-style militarism.

The emotional crescendo of the film comes when, after three years at the front, Paul returns home on leave.

He visits his old school only to hear his old teacher spouting out the same old lies about the ‘heroism’ and ‘nobility’ and ‘the war for civilisation’.

Paul denounces his teacher with the words, ‘It is easier to say go out and die than it is to do it.’ Tellingly, Paul cuts short his leave to go back to the front, where he knows he will die.

Real contempt in this movie is mobilised not against war in the abstract, and certainly not against the ordinary soldiers, but against those who monger wars and justify them with humanitarian bullshit and patriotic spin.

That’s what makes this film so acutely relevant today. Ironically, where the propaganda in the First World War was that it was the ‘war to end all wars’, 90 years on Bush and Blair want to return us to the age of war without end.

But, naturally, like Paul’s teacher their sanctimonious lies condemn other men and women to actually die.

Of course, the film shows its age, even in this beautifully restored version.

Technically it is inevitably naive-but this very simplicity gives the film an eloquence that flashier and noisier movies simply cannot achieve. It has the severity and rage of a Wilfred Owen poem.

Even if you have seen All Quiet on the Western Front on video, you should see it on the big screen it was made for. Meanwhile, those New Labour MPs who answered Bush’s bugle call by voting for the attack on Iraq should be forced to watch this movie every single remaining day of their despicable lives.

All Quiet on the Western Front will be shown next Tuesday, 11 November, at the Curzon Cinema, Soho, in London. Watch out for screenings at independent cinemas. The original film is also available on video.

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