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The critic Liam O'Leary justly states that:
Pabst was enmeshed in the happenings of his times, which ultimately engulfed him. He is the chronicler of the churning maelstrom of social dreams and living neuroses, and it is this perception of his time which raises him above many of his contemporary filmmakers. (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers)
G.W. Pabst (1885-1967) born in Bohemia, studied engineering in Vienna, then Academy of Decorative Arts 1904-6. Begins acting career appearing in Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, USA. Returns to Europe in 1914 to recruit more actors but is interned in France as an enemy alien. Imprisoned as POW in camp in Brest 1914-18, organises theatre group in camp. After war active in Expressionist theatre in Vienna and Prague. Joins film production company in 1922. With Heinrich Mann, Erwin Piscator, Karl Freund forms left-wing Volksverband für Filmkunst (Popular Association for Film Art) in 1928. When Hitler comes to power in 1933 chooses to remain in France, invited to work in Hollywood, returns to France in 1935, offered French citizenship but refuses because he fears son will be conscripted into French army. Decides to emigrate to USA so returns briefly to Austria to collect his effects, falls ill and is trapped in Austria after outbreak of war. Controversial decision to make historical films under Nazis 1941-44. Continued to make films after war in Austria and Italy.
Films: first film The Treasure (1923); first critical success The Joyless Street (1925) about life on a working class street where the impact of post-war corruption, inflation and unemployment takes its toll; an exploration of Freudian analysis with clever dream sequences in Secrets of a Soul (1926); the controversial Pandora's Box (1928) starring Louise Brooks as Lulu offended conservative taste with an explicit lesbian love scene; the trilogy dealing with aspects of post-WW1 and Weimar society: the hard-hitting anti-war film Westfront 1918 (1930); film based on Brecht's satire of capitalist society The Threepenny Opera (1931); plea for international cooperation between France and Germany Kameradschaft (Comradeship) (1931).
Title translates as "The Western Front, 1918". The Russian Revolution brought an end to the fighting on the Eastern Front although many divisions were required to enforce the occupation of the territory acquired by the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of early 1918. Nevetheless, many divisions were released for one last offensive on the Western Front in 1918.
An excellent companion piece to Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in its expression of disillusionment and pacifism. Ivan Butler describes it as follows:
Slow, sombre, weighty, deliberately monotonous, concentrating on the barren, ruined landscapes of trench warfare, it evokes an atmosphere of leaden desolation, sometimes confusing, and not altogether avoiding the pitfall of becoming boring when trying to represent boredom. It is, nonetheless, an impressive and moving indictment. Nazi Germany liked it not at all. (The War Film (1974), p. 45)
P views the war through the eyes of four ordinary German soldiers (the Lieutenant, the Bavarian, the student, Karl) who serve in the same company fighting the French on the Western Front in the last stages of WW1. The front is static and the German soldiers attempt to hold their line against French attacks. Periods of intense fighting are interspersed with periods of inactivity. The French launch a tank attack which leave many French and German soldiers lying dying on the ground. The structure of the film is episodic with numerous vignettes showing various aspects of life in the trenches and at the home front.
Pabst's first sound film.
Screenplay by Ladislaus Vajda and Peter Martin Lampel taken from the novel by Ernst Johannsen,Vier von der Infanterie, ihre letzten Tage an der Westfront, 1918 (Four Infantrymen: Their Last Days on the Western Front, 1918) (Berlin, 1929).
70 German divisions freed up by success of Russian Revolution transferred to W Front to take advantage of demoralised French and before American forces could arrive in numbers. Kaiserschlacht (Emperor's Battle) under Gen Ludendorff began 21 March 1918 with gas shell bombardment of rear areas of the British to disrupt communication. Broke through British line near Péronne and advanced 14 miles. This and 2 other attacks brought to a halt by June when American forces began to arrive (85,000 Americans at Belleau Wood). French counter-attack July-August 1918.
Battle of Amiens (Montdidier) August 1918. Final series of allied counter-offensives. Better use of tanks (554 tanks demoralised enemy but vulnerable to artillery). Much of infantry was Australian and Canadian. 6 German divisions smashed and 7 mile advance acheived. Whole front north of Marne river advancing against demoralised Germans (160 allied divisions vs 100 understrength German divisions). Further breakthroughs in Sept. Ludendorff urged Kaiser to seek armistice which was signed and took effect 11am 11 November 1918.
The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Volume 2: Directors, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987).
1. How does one depict the boredom of war without making a boring movie?
2. The simplistic pacifist message shared by a number of other anti-war films and novels which appeared in 1928-30: Karl's comment "We are all to blame"; the Lt. stands to attention, says "Zur Befehl, Majestät!" (As you order, Your Majesty), then dies; the dying soldier who murmurs "Nie wieder Krieg!" (the title of a pacifist book written by Berta von Suttner); the dying French soldier who says to a German soldier lying next to him "Comrade, you are not my enemy", holds the hand of Karl who has just died; the socialist appeal to universal brotherhood with which the film ends. What impact if any did these pacifist sentiments have on the public?
3. Pabst's brilliant tracking shots down the trenches and across No Man's Land. Compare Kubrick's tracking shots in Paths of Glory (1957).
4. The unrelenting picture of horror Pabst gives us of modern warfare. Burying the dead student's hand in a shell hole.
5. The ignorance of the home front of the conditions in the trenches. The alienation of the soldiers when visiting the home front - can't wait to return to fighting front and comrades (compare AQWF). The depiction of the war of attrition against Germany: impact of naval blocade, shortages of food, coffee.
6. How accurate a picture of trench warfare does Pabst give us? Artillery bombardment, bunkers, the role of "runners" (Hitler's job), problems with communication, periods of rest and recreation, going on leave back home, desertion, Military Police, use of tractors and tanks at the end of the war, hysterical soldiers receiving first aid, exhausted doctors, killing lice in the clothes, gas attack.
7. How and to whom does Pabst assign blame for what happens? The Karl's mother: "Can anyone help it?". Karl: "We are all to blame".
8. The idea that comradeship between soldiers (workers) should be stronger than the nationalism which separates them. Compare All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Renoir's The Great Illusion (1937).
9. The realisation that "the Great War" is only the first part of an unfinished conlfict: "Ende?!"
10. An old movie which was made early in the transition to "talkies": poor sound and picture quality in places, the lingering influence of silent movie conventions (story boards - "Is she really to blame?"), the thrill of sound (song numbers are too long)
11. The parallels with AQWF: hand-to-hand combat in shell whole with French enemy.