Friday, July 24, 2009

Restored: All Quiet on the Western Front (Silent)

It might just be the last truly great anti-war film. Nobody begrudged Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (trailer here) its 1930 Academy Awards for best picture and director, not even in retrospect. Yet, very few saw the picture as Milestone had originally conceived it, because of last minute cuts the studio made to the domestic sound print. However, as was common practice at the time, a silent version was simultaneously shot for the foreign market. Considered much closer to Milestone’s intended cut, the longer silent print has recently been restored and preserved by the Library of Congress, and will play a special one day engagement at Film Forum on August 3rd.

Strictly speaking, the restored silent print of Quiet is not completely silent. In addition to the original score, there are ambient crowd noises and other such effects. Frankly, the nature of Erich Remarque’s story is such that extensive dialogue is not necessary. It simply follows the tragic story arc of Paul Baumer and his fellow students, who are encouraged to enlist by a militaristic professor, only to be disillusioned by the harsh realities of trench warfare.

Nearly eighty years later, Milestone’s film is still probably the most successful cinematic depiction of WWI’s miserable fighting conditions. Its reconstruction of the trenches and tunnels along the front lines has yet to be equaled on film. While nothing explicitly graphic is seen on-screen, the horror of war remains inescapable.

As many have observed, there was only a limited window in which an anti-war film with sympathetic German protagonists could have been filmed before the threat of National Socialism would have rendered it highly distasteful to the general public. Still, Quiet also critiques the warmongering attitudes of the German government, as represented by Baumer’s demagogic professor.

Quiet was Lew Ayres breakout film, and even without dialogue, he is quite compelling as Baumer, expressing his religious piety and basic decency, as well as a growing contempt for the German war machine. In fact, all his brothers-in-arms are played with straight forward effectiveness. Arguably, the film only descends into the realm of melodrama during the civilian scenes.

Ultimately, the silent version holds up remarkably well not just as a historical curiosity but as a film in its own right. Though it was produced during the transitional period between the end of silent pictures and the early days of talkies, Quiet is still an impressive cinematic achievement. It will have three screenings at Film Forum on Monday (8/3).