All Quiet on the Western Front
November 23rd, 2022
Last night I watched All Quiet on the Western Front by Eduard Berger. The photography, the music, and the direction are impeccable. Felix Kammerer plays Paul Bäumer, the protagonist of the beautiful novel by Erich Maria Remarque.
The scenes are horrific, very explicit, and bloody. Wars are like that. The soldiers are not those brave young men depicted in paintings from before the 20th century; they are boys frightened.
The film conveys the message that Rilke wanted to share in the book: while some benefit from the war, there are thousands, millions, who suffer and die. The firsts bring young people to the slaughter with nationalist rhetoric. Honor, homeland, glory, empty words that ignite the imagination of people who have not lived the war.
Millions died in the Great War. The survivors would face more suffering and experience another war, even crueler.
We are in 2022. In Sahel, there is war. There is war in Ethiopia. In Yemen and Syria, there are awful civil wars. In Palestine, there is war. Russian forces have invaded Ukraine. Young Russians are sent to death in the name of a nation that imagines itself as eternal and powerful. Tuvans and Buryats, often marginalized and shunned by some Russian Slavs, are now recruited and sent to Ukraine. It is inevitable to remember Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich. How many young people will return to their families in coffins?
I think that historians are not very good at conveying pain and suffering. Even in the new military history books, where you can find why thousands of young people decide to go to war, it is difficult to find the pain that poets—like Rilke—can express.
The poet Wilfred Owen, who died on the front lines in World War I, left hurtful verses about dead comrades and the pain of the soldier friend wounded by shrapnel, blood, tears, and mutilations. “If you saw that,” he concluded, “you would stop repeating the old lie: dulce et decorum est pro Patria Mori.”