All Quiet on the Western Front opens on an adolescent in the throes of fearing missing out. The young Paul (Felix Kammerer) does not want to be excluded from going to war — where all his buddies are headed, and where valor is bound to be found. The fact that his parents do not want him to go is a sign of weakness, a signaling to Paul that they want him to be perceived as incapable or scared.
So entranced in the ideals of wartime propaganda, the boys don’t even consider the rather disturbing clues before them — why they need so many new men to fight this war constantly, why their uniforms have other boy’s names still stitched into them (“It was probably too small for the fellow,” their leaders lie with ease, “Happens all the time”).
But the moment they are actually in active service, these boys’ illusions are shattered. There is no slow build to the regret of the teen soldiers who fall for their countries’ respective war propaganda and enlist. Within minutes of being in the trenches, watching death surround them so rapidly it’s not possible to process, they are aware that they have made a catastrophic error in judgment.
Despite being essentially the only reason that Paul and his friends enlist, there is no true heroism in All Quiet on the Western Front. There’s some blind luck, and there’s some kill-or-be-killed action taken, but even the few that survive most of the actual war are mostly picked off in increasingly ludicrous ways as they wait to return home. In fact, by the end, it feels that those who died earlier may be the lucky ones — less time to sit with what you have seen and done and what has been done to you.
The film highlights an absolute senselessness — both in the way the violence does not feel like it serves a purpose (especially as the war literally nears its final hours), but also in the way it is impossible to grasp, in the way that we see and hear death and destruction onscreen that is literally unfathomable. In turn, our soldiers act in senseless ways. In perhaps the most devastating moment of the film, one of Paul’s kills becomes almost intimate. He grapples in hand-to-hand combat and is briefly victorious, but when he’s forced to watch the life leave his enemy’s hand at a snail’s pace between endless guttural gasps, Paul snaps and swings like a pendulum between rage and guilt-ridden grief. He shoves mud in the dying man’s mouth just to take it out and attempt to resuscitate him. Unable to truly hate, he is forced to be filled with desperate regret. His attempts at saving the man are not only pointless, they’re illogical — which seems to be the film’s essential suggestion about war as a practice.
All Quiet On The Western Front is about as bleak as can be. Its “exciting” moments only serve to nauseate in their intense violence, and more than anything it captures the feeling of a cold, wet slog through the mud. The point is that there is none, the point is that it’s all for nothing, and always has been.