My foray into the war genre continues following my viewing of All Quiet On The Western Front for the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book. This time we take on life, both the terror and the tedium, of trench life on the German lines, in this, Pabst’s first talkie.
The film came across, to me, as more of an experience than a single narrative, we’re thrown in with a group of soldiers, amongst them, Georges (Hans-Joachim Mobis), known mostly as the Student and Karl (Gustav Diessl). The horror of war is omnipresent, there is the prevalent fear of being buried alive from the constant shelling. Despite that the troops try to get their sleep wherever and whenever possible.
Our young Student, volunteers constantly as a messenger, running missives back and forth from the front lines to the headquarters in the rear, this allows him a reprieve from the assaults, and lets him try to woo a young French peasant girl, Yvette (Jackie Monnier), despite the fact that they don’t share a common tongue beyond that of love. And the two of them seem willing to make it work, just with that alone.
The events that these men experience together generates a shared camaraderie, one filled with thoughts of the time of setting aside weapons and the longing for peace and companionship. They have reflective and relaxing moments together, a shared song in a music hall, while new recruits pile in before them. These tiny moments are sought out by both the characters, and the film, anything to distract from the horrors of the trenches.
But the war isn’t only a physical battle fought between nations of men, some of them, even when they are afforded a moment to step away from it, given leave, find themselves unable to leave the war at the front. It permeates everything, soaking their souls and lives in blood that will stain them forever. This is something Karl learns firsthand, when he is given a chance to go home and visit his wife. It’s a sad and troubling sequence, and part of him actually longs to return to the horrors and death of the front lines.
The shelling and the attacks overshadow everything else in the film, wide shots encompass the battlefield with an unflinching eye, painting a realistic and horrific image of war. A war that tears everyone involved in it apart, Yvette is driven from her home, afraid her Student will not be able to find her, friends and allies fall, tumbling before a terrifying assault, until the film draws to a close, leaving us in the equal horror of a field hospital, with cries of those in pain, and those of they dying haunting the viewer as the film ends.