Ranking: #13/111

Director: G.W. Pabst (Austria)    

Genre: War Drama

In the history of cinema, there have been numerous powerful war dramas, such as Le Silence de la Mer (1949), The Burmese Harp (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), The Cranes are Flying (1957), Destiny of a Man (1959), Ivan’s Childhood (1962), The Train (1964), Army of Shadows (1969), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), The Ascent (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), Platoon (1986), Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), The Pianist (2002), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), and one of the earliest masterpieces in this genre was G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918. In its brilliant realism, mobile camera work, thematic depth and emotive impact, this 1930 film paved the way for Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and even Oliver Stone’sprofound study of war, Platoon.

Over nine decades since it was released, it remains one of the most authentic, dynamic and unpretentious war films you’ll ever see.

Westfront 1918 was far ahead of its time, especially in the striking use of settings, which seem so real that the characters emerge from them, belonging to the world Pabst creates with such vibrancy and immediacy. In the trenches and dugouts on the frontline, you feel the mud, the dirt, the blood and the thud of explosions; you sense the agony of the wounded. It’s a textured and atmospheric war drama. His style is pure cinema – this is not theatre, or literature. There is no music. The effect in most scenes is of a dynamic immediacy. In other words, the power of the imagery and use of natural sounds brings the action close to the screen, close to us as the audience. There are very few long shots, if any; Pabst turns his camera into an active participant in the trenches and war scenes. His camera style is close, even claustrophobic at times, and always intimate. The viewer is invited to live the story with the characters, to sense what life was like for them.

The palette is appropriate for a war drama – the greys of day, often depicting an unearthly landscape, give way to dark blacks at night, when there are chiaroscuro effects, contrasting light and dark.

The director involves the home front, and not just the frontlines, in the drama. War’s impact on families back home is depicted. One of the soldiers, Karl, for example, returns home on leave to find his wife is having an affair. He goes back to the trenches to fight without forgiving her, believing she has betrayed him. Her sorrow at what has happened is shown. At the end, however, Karl has softened his stance and the movie concludes with his observation: “We are all guilty”.

Pabst wants to include the struggles of the population back home as part of the war experience. His view of the war as a total, collective experience for a society is authentic. There are no individuals who stand out. It’s as if the director was heavily influenced in his style by the humanist Soviet school of film.

Pabst recreated the devastation of World War 1 in a searing portrait of war.