Propaganda: Innocence and War on the Western Front

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Clay Chastain
Dr. Delwiche

COMM 3325

15 October 2008

Propaganda: Innocence and War on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) is an award-winning remake of the movie of the same name (1930) and is based upon the classic German novel released in 1929. This version, as well as the other versions, follows the life of a German boy in World War I and his exploits as a soldier. The movie shows the hardships of war in graphic detail, using both blatant and symbolic images to reinforce the strong underlying anti-war message of the presentation. This remake was released a time when the United States’ was finished withdrawing from Vietnam, the country’s first military defeat. Society was concerned with war still, but not active in it. Socially, the movie was assumedly well received for its anti-war message, as indicated from its many awards. The original book’s “commentary was a reflection of postwar political and emotional investments” (Eksteins, 1980, p. 358), similar to the 1979 remake which was released after a large-scale war.

In terms of media messages, All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) is a classic example of anti-war propaganda. While violence and death are common elements in the film, the real propaganda message comes through during the slow progression of the protagonist Paul Baumer from a boy into a hardened soldier; the film warns of the loss of innocence and the crime that war inflicts on a boy's humanity, forever restricting his ability to regain his role as an average citizen. In this paper, the transformation of Paul Baumer and its effects will be critically analyzed to show the relationship to the overall anti-war propaganda message the filmmakers intended to produce.

Throughout the film, Paul becomes increasingly more distant from his school days, eventually leading to his inability to cope with civilian life. Clearly, the most profound anti-war propaganda is never the image of death, but rather the effects those images of death have on the individual. The movie shows these effects of death to the viewer using techniques of American cinema of the late 1970’s, some of which being “rapid cutting, extreme closeups, as well as an assault upon the senses by intensified battle noise and an excruciating specificity of blood and gore, including impacting bullets, retching gas victims, gaping wounds and flowing blood, rat-besieged corpses and incinerating flamethrowers, all in vivid colour” (Chambers, 1994). In this way, the movie can be seen as an effective communicator of this propaganda message because its relevance to any age group of any era in any war because of its relationship to the common emotions associated with the loss of innocence. This concept can be explained in the idea that the viewer should relate to Paul on this level to be an effective message. In Albert Behnam’s article War or Peace in the Movies, he quotes an older article by Edgar Dale which describes propaganda movies as “. . . an attempt to get the other fellow to a certain situation from your point of view, especially through an emotional rather than a logical or intellectual appeal” (1937, p. 109). It can be seen throughout the film that an emotional appeal is one of the key aspects of being able to relate with Paul through his struggles. Further, the director of the film also felt this was an important facet of the movie, stating in an interview that “[the book is] done in a poetic kind of way, so you end up participating in the agonies of that war, but you are not so horrified by it that you put the book down. You're taken in by it, you're moved by it enormously, but at the same time there's a distancing that takes place in the reading of Remarque's book, and I wanted Sidney [the screenwriter] to capture that in the screenplay” (Mann, 2001). With this mindset, the movie intends to capture the same spirit of war that the book does, making an emotional appeal which is relatable, yet different, to the viewer.

The movie can largely be broken down into five key sections: Paul's school days and his eventual enlistment after graduation, along with the training he receives; his first shipment out to the front and the sights he sees; his injury at the front after being stationed in France for over a year, his stay in the hospital, and his short leave period; and finally, the return to this comrades at the front and his eventual death.

At the exposition of the movie, Paul is stationed at the front during a French assault. The opening scene is set off by slow pans surveying a wrecked battlefield; in particular, a church is leveled by a bomb. Immediately, the viewer is introduced to the destroyed state of the front and, in general, the destruction that war inflicts upon land. Not even religion is safe, it would appear. From here, the camera cuts to another slow pan down the trenches to show the German soldiers. These men are rugged, but in contrast to their appearance, Paul narrates a description of each which details their future occupations, from theologians to foresters. He makes sure to say that each will be something besides soldiers, ignoring the near promise of death. Hopeful, Paul reflects on his past.

Paul is now in school; a different Paul than the viewer was introduced to. This Paul is clean, smiling, and looking out a window. His teacher, Mr. Kantorek, stands before a group of the same boys that were just shown in the trenches moments before. This contrast alone shows the entire mood of the movie to come; it highlights the transition the boys must go through to become soldiers. Kantorek is portrayed as an idealistic German who “train[s] . . . minds for [their] Kaiser, [their] Fatherland” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). He lectures the students on their duties as men. He tells Paul, after catching him drawing a bird during his speech, that he “. . . is a dreamer – but now [he] is a man, and [he has] duties as a man” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). In this way, the filmmakers have set up the common German motivation of the time and the culture’s conception of manhood. According to Kantorek, growing up is equivalent to serving in the name of your country through military duty. Brown, attempting to identify media propaganda, feels that “[n]ationalism . . . arouses a dominant sense of loyalty” (Brown, 1937, p. 326). Similarly, this can be seen of any nation who has a strong sense of patriotism, not unlike these idealistic Germans (or even Americans). This is the overt propaganda message which drives the boys into service.

The next sequence is the enlistment and training phase. The schoolboys are proudly marching down streets with cheery expressions while singing patriotic songs. Onlookers allow them free passage and children follow happily imitating the boys. Upon leaving, the mother of Kemmerich, a fellow classmate makes Paul promise that he will look over her son, and that he will remain safe. Kemmerich's mother is shown as a general representation of any mother, one who is worried for her son, but also proud of his accomplishments. In a medium-close shot, her mixed expression can be seen.

After arriving at the training base, the enlistment volunteers are told to separate into three ranks. This task is frustrating difficult for them. Again, this is an example of their naivety to military matters. Paul's group meets Himmelstoss, a corporal who handles drill activities. He promises to teach them skills that “. . . [they] will never forget” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). For better or for worse, the boys are pushed to their limits with drills. Paul is picked on in particular for catching Himmelstoss off guard in an exercise. Yet, in an act of defiance to the strict military life, the trainees pull a prank on him before their graduation. This defiance shows that while the group now looks and acts like soldiers, they are still boys inside. Still, the change in the boys is becoming apparent to the viewer. No longer are they smiling and singing songs; now they are marching in file without showing any outward signs of emotion.

This leads into the second phase of Paul's lost innocence where the distinction between the romanticism of war and the horrors of its reality are shown to the audience. The boys, although in uniform, appear clean and youthful. However, at the train station, they see exactly what they will become: men stagger, injured from the war, coughing and bandaged with obvious bloodstains. These men, like the boys, came from the same training. This is the first grim realization of the hardships that lie ahead. Once off the train, they are driven to the front. The scene is quiet and grim. No background music from this point on is included in the film until Paul returns home on leave briefly later in the plot. The viewer is reintroduced to the war-torn battlefield of the front through a somber ride. When they exit, they meet what they will become if they manage to stay alive: an “old hand” soldier known as Kat that is familiar with the intricate details of warfare. Under his direction, the boys look up to him as a source of comfort and protection; he states that his goal is to make the group “. . . forget all that [training]” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). However, they soon realize that war has little comfort. On their first patrol, they are shelled and immediately see soldiers die, as well as injured horses, which drives the young soldier Detering into a frenzy. He yells to “shoot the injured horses” and begins to scream. Already, the message is clear to the viewer: war's impact upon the young mind is immediate. This is the group's first experience of the brutality of man, although they later come to embrace much of this as a way to pass time when in the bunkers hunting rats for fun. Kat notes, following the end of the encounter, that “[the group] is almost getting to be soldiers now” (Stoll & Mann, 1979), implying that emotional hardship and exposure to brutality is a part of the soldier experience.

When the group stays together for a year, they begin to become hardened veterans of the front. They now reflect on the difference between themselves and the new recruits, some of which are only sixteen years old. Paul says that “[t]he new recruits are more trouble than their worth . . . They know nothing, so they die like flies” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). Yet, rarely does Paul make reference to himself, just one year ago. It seems that he is completely different than these new soldiers. And from the depiction of Paul’s group, from their dress and their unshaven, dirty faces, it can be seen that these soldiers look like those they encountered just one year ago while boarding the train for the front. The transformation that has happened to them has begun to separate themselves from their humanity on some level. When attempting to catch two geese, the group acts wildly. Kat admits that it is “not a bad little war” (Stoll & Mann, 1979) after all. This is perhaps an indication that they have grown used to the life at the front, not caring about the savagery that they endure as long as they have material reward.

The group of soldiers becomes increasingly more distanced from their school days through their experiences at the front. When a large shipment of coffins comes, Kat remarks that headquarters was considerate enough to “even give us the stuff to fill 'em with” (Stoll & Mann, 1979), referring to a group of sixteen year old soldiers unloading from a nearby truck. To the surprise of the group, Himmelstoss also unloads from the truck. When he notices the group he trained a year ago, he tries to use his military commands. However, the group has been so disenchanted by the strict order and routine of the military that they ignore Himmelstoss completely and instead ridicule him in front of the green recruits. This scene is an important aspect of the film because it shows a symbolic mirror of what the group used to be – a group that used to be idealistic and concerned with appearances. Now, the group was not even in uniform; they were careless and transformed completely from whom they were. These kid soldiers that fill the coffins could have indeed been themselves only one year ago; but now, at this point, they do not recognize their own beginnings. There is, essentially, no realization of this fact to the group, but the viewer is obviously made aware of this meaning. Paul narrates the following scene in the trenches, saying, “No longer do we lie helpless, waiting destruction. We can destroy and kill. To save ourselves and to be revenged. When we see their faces, we become wild beasts. We become thugs and murderers, into god only know what devils. If your own father came over, you wouldn't hesitate to fling a bomb into him” (Stoll & Mann, 1979).

This change represents one of the more profound moments in the movie, where Paul reflects upon his own transformation. The viewer is given this information through a somber narration. In terms of a propaganda message, it is clear that the filmmakers want to persuade the viewer with Paul's transformation. If this is not enough of an obvious message, Paul's thoughts are heard over the sound of gunfire and the eventual killing of a French soldier with a grenade. The audience soon sees Himmelstoss lying in the dirt trying to hide from an offensive maneuver on the French trenches. Here, the once tough-talking soldier is shown to have none of the courage that was expected from him. With this, the contrast between a true soldier and the soldier who has not seen war is apparent.

The final step of Paul's transformation into a soldier is not just killing, but establishing a personal connection with the enemy. When a French soldier tries to hide in Paul's bomb crater on the front, Paul stabs him out of instinct and training. Yet, as time passes, he stays awake watching him moan before he bled to death. He attempts to finish off the French soldier, but he cannot bring himself to accomplish the deed. Instead, he tries to lessen the wound by giving him a bandage, but the soldier expires. Paul promises to write to the family, admitting to himself that he has killed this soldier. In this scene, the filmmakers focused on the estranged moans and close shots of the struggling soldier. The death of this soldier leads Paul to reevaluate his status as a soldier, saying, “We could be brothers. But they never want us to know that, do they? We each have mothers, fathers. Same fear of death. Same pain. Same everything. Forgive me comrade” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). This depiction of war brings the anti-war message home to the audience. After witnessing this seemingly average man being murdered and dying slowly, the personal connection between Paul and the Frenchman is established in such a way that anyone could potentially relate. Before this point, all of the death has been impersonal and distant, usually indirectly shown through a grenade or other explosive blast.

In this sense, the audience is now exposed to the governmental wrongdoing by Paul's realization. And, in support of this, the next sequence is a bright, cheery parade set off by a backdrop of destroyed buildings. Officers in ornate uniforms are seen driving through in parade formation. The Kaiser himself is present for the ceremony, pinning medals on the supposedly valiant soldiers, including the cowardly Himmelstoss. Paul, as well as the viewer, sees that the government is isolated and detached from the real situation on the front lines. The award ceremony is a symbol of the control of the government and its overall lack of ability to understand what war is really about. The Kaiser, in an ironic speech, addresses Himmelstoss and the other soldiers, saying, “The men who have received decorations this day have all performed actions worthy of our great cause. Henceforth, Germany expects each of your to follow their example. From this day on, your Kaiser urges you to aspire to such strength, to such bravery, to such obedience to your god, to your country. If you do, my soldiers, I am certain that every one of your will one day wear a medal pinned on you by your Kaiser . . . [W]ith God's help you are winning a glorious victory for the Fatherland” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). The irony in this statement is expressed in the fact that Paul is the brave soldier; he is the one who encouraged Himmelstoss to fight instead of cower. Yet, from the top-down perspective of the government, the war is incorrectly characterized and rewards for true soldiers go to lesser men.

At this point in the narrative, the band of soldiers has become men through a baptism by fire. Still, they are, in a sense, immature in other ways. The last way that Paul is transformed is by romance and his chance encounter with French girls. Instead of being a story of love, the soldiers’ lives have been altered in such away that they trade bread and other food for sex. The soldiers suddenly appear to the audience as shy boys, naked and confused. Again, war is shown as an agent of transformation that abstracts and confuses natural steps to adulthood, reducing them down to an exchange of material good. This is the soldier’s romance, not the kind the audience should expect from an eighteen year old boy.

While being transported to a different part of the front, Paul and his band is hit with mortars in a French village. One of his friends is hit directly and dies instantly, but Paul is merely hit in his leg. His other squad mate Albert is more severely hit in the legs, however. While not only an indication of the volatile nature of war, it also launches Paul into a Catholic hospital for care. When there, the hopeless soldiers wait to either die or watch soldiers die as they heal. Some try to commit suicide, and Paul watches as Albert loses what little spirit he had left. When Paul asks if there is anything he can get him to help, Albert only replies, “A gun” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). Paul has now been exposed to not only physical death of his comrades, but now also a form of emotional death. Indeed, this familiarity with death characterizes the last chapters of the film.

Paul is sent on a medical leave back to his home town. There, all of the same people reside from when Paul was still a schoolboy; it is life as Paul left it long ago. But, Paul’s change has made him wary of this culture, and his comforts are now his enemies. He sees firsthand that the people who are not in war are now fundamentally different from him. Paul wants to distance himself from the front by taking off his uniform, but his father is puzzled; he wants to “. . . show off [his] soldier boy to the fellows” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). His father is unable to comprehend the pain and trauma that Paul, and, in some sense, the viewer have been through.

Throughout the film, Paul keeps personal feelings from completely changing him. He has fought for innocence, refusing numerous times to smoke. At the pub, when offered a cigar, he refuses; however, the man offering it claims that “[i]f you are old enough to kill a Frenchman, you are old enough to smoke” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). Paul still refuses to smoke, even though he has obviously killed Frenchman. In this way, he keeps a part of himself, some distant idea of humanity, locked inside. And indeed, Paul seems to long for his innocence, wishing he could be the boy he once was. Upon seeing Kantorek again, Paul says that the young soldiers are “. . . not Iron Youth; [they are] just boys who want to play, laugh, and stay alive – only boys” (Stoll & Mann, 1979).

Ultimately, Paul’s transformation is already complete. He has minimal ties left to his prior life. Because of this, Paul’s soldier self is now incompatible and impractical for the civilian life. In a letter to his mother, he writes, “. . . I used to live in this room. All my things are here, my books, my beloved books. But they no longer speak to me like they used to. For I am no longer what I was when I lived in this room. I am a soldier. My business is not reading, it is killing. My knowledge of life is limited to death. And I know now I should have never come back . . . I feel I am going back to my real home” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). The audience is given a clear message that war is the final destroyer of innocence and the educator in the ways of death. Cobley, analyzing modern war films, claims that the story of transformation is one where “the main characters gradually deteriorate, until they die at the end of the story” (1994, p. 77). Paul, in this sense, has foreshadowed his eventual death in the way; he has already lost his humanity, but his life is somehow continuing on.

The final challenge to Paul’s innocence comes from his return to the front. His last remaining classmates are killed in front of him, and eventually even Kat is killed by a seemingly random piece of shrapnel. Paul narrates a quiet battlefield near the end of the war, saying, “We wait for the end. We wait for peace” (Stoll & Mann, 1979). Yet, for Paul, there is no return to home. His transformation has been constructed in such a way that he has lost what little humanity he has; after all of his squad is dead, he even picks up smoking. The camera focuses on Paul’s grim face as he walks down the trench line. Paul hears a mockingbird singing from a nearby tree; his face changes to a reflection of the dreamer he used to be in his school days as he traces it. But, as he embraces his past life for just a few seconds, he is shot and killed by a French marksman.

Paul’s transformation and his death are the ultimate propaganda message for an anti-war statement. His story focuses on the brutal change from a boy to soldier’s conception of what a man should be. Paul is utterly unable to embrace his old life, trapped and isolated from everything that he once loved. His only life that makes sense to him, his comrades, have died, and his attempts of remembering the past were impossible. His brief attempt to draw a bird as he once did led to his immediate death. Paul was displaced from his life, condemned to die a sacrifice to his country’s ideologies.

Overall, the propaganda message that All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) conveys is told through this story of transformation because it allows the average viewer to share Paul’s emotions and cruel fate. Through the narrative, the filmmakers used this building of contrasting personalities until Paul, and ultimately the viewer, had no escape from the tyranny of war upon men’s bodies and minds, making it a potent antiwar film for any viewer.

Works Cited

Benham, A. (1937). War or peace in the movies. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 1(4), 109-114.

Brown, F. J. (1937). Media of propaganda. Journal of Educational Sociology, 10(6, Nonschool Agencies in the Development of Nationalism and Internationalism), 323-330.

Chambers II, J. (1994, October). `All Quiet on the Western Front' (1930): The antiwar film and the image of the First World War. Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, 14(4), 377. Retrieved October 11, 2008, from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Cobley, E. (1994). Violence and sacrifice in modern war narratives. SubStance, 23(3, Issue 75), 75-99.

Eksteins, M. (1980). All quiet on the western front and the fate of a war. Journal of Contemporary History, 15(2), 345-366.

Mann, D. (2001, December 3). The battle to produce Hallmark's WWI drama. Electronic Media, 20(49), 16. Retrieved October 11, 2008, from Academic Search Complete database.

Stoll, J. (Producer), & Mann, D. (Director). (1979). All Quiet on the Western Front [Motion Picture]. United States: CBS Television.

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