August 3, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
G. W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918
Westfront 1918. 1930. Germany. Directed by G. W. Pabst

Westfront 1918. 1930. Germany. Directed by G. W. Pabst

These notes accompany screenings of G. W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918, August 4, 5, and 6 in Theater 3.

When we last encountered G. W. Pabst (1885–1967), he had made the startling Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box). He then directed two more silent films, another Louise Brooks vehicle, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl) and (collaborating with Dr. Arnold Fanck) the “mountain film” Die Weisse Holle vom Pitz Palu (The White Hell of Pitz Palu), starring Leni Riefenstahl. His first sound film, Westfront 1918 (released in May 1930), was based on Ernst Johannsen’s novel Vier von der Infanterie. Unfortunately, both book and film were inundated by the international wave of acclaim for the Remarque novel/Milestone film All Quiet on the Western Front (shown last week in this series). This is too bad, because Pabst’s film is arguably better than Milestone’s. Both films are revisionist and unbridled in their pacifist propaganda, but as critic Siegfried Kracauer suggested in a 1930 review, Pabst’s film goes beyond conventionally slick cinematic exposition to give an almost documentary look at the horrors and claustrophobic tedium of World War I. In this, Pabst was aided immeasurably by the fluid camera of veteran cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, who had shot Fritz’s Lang’s Destiny and Spies, several of F. W. Murnau’s films, including Nosferatu, and Pabst’s The Loves of Jeanne Ney.

As will become evident in our Weimar film exhibition (in November 2010), and as evidenced by the rise of the Nazis, the late 1920s and early 1930s were indeed dark days in Germany. In commenting on Pandora’s Box, I pointed to the confusing pattern of Pabst’s life and career during and following this period. The left-wing tendencies evident in Westfront 1918, The Threepenny Opera, and Kameradschaft (his three major sound films before briefly departing Germany) seem totally out of synch with his later return to the Third Reich, even if his Nazi-era films were not overtly political. Charles Shibuk, writing in the New York Film Bulletin, praised the first half of Westfront 1918 as “easily recognizable Pabst—if one can indeed call anything typical from this illusive figure who is unquestionably the most baffling and half understood major talent in the history of the cinema.” This assessment is different from Andrew Sarris’s designation of Milestone as an “uncommitted director.” Pabst, if anything, seemed overcommitted but confused by the troubled times in which he lived and worked.

Pabst’s films in Hollywood, France, and later back in Germany show little of what Lotte Eisner called his “great visual gifts.” Eisner, the foremost scholar of Expressionist cinema, found him to be “full of contradictions” and refers to Harry Alan Potamkin’s view that “Pabst never got to the root of the problems inherent in his art, but merely skimmed over the surface of his subjects.” So, Pabst left us with several early masterpieces and a very clear statement of auteurist principles: “I remain certain that in the cinema the text counts for very little. What counts is the image. So I would still claim that the creator of a film is much more the director than the author of the scenario or the actors.”

Due to the sparseness of subtitles in this print, the following synopsis is provided:

The story takes place during the last few months of World War I. The setting is the German trenches near the front line. Things are stagnant; the Germans hold their positions against French attacks. Fighting flares up and then subsides. One day a crowded German dugout is hit directly by a French shell. The soldiers rush to rescue their comrades from suffocation. A young soldier-student volunteers to take a message to headquarters. He meets a French girl and loses his virginity before returning to the dugout. He is killed in a hand-to-hand struggle with the enemy in a shell hole. Karl goes home on leave and discovers his wife with a butcher’s assistant, who has ingratiated himself with extra meat rations. He is consoled by his mother and returns disillusioned to the front. He learns that his friend, the young student, has been killed by a French colonel, who can be heard screaming in agony from no-man’s-land. Karl, seeking death, goes on a reconnaissance mission and passes his friend’s body. The French stage an overpowering tank assault. The wounded, both French and German, are taken to a rural church that is being used as a field hospital. Agonizing cries pierce the air. French and German soldiers lie dying side by side. One soldier grasps his enemy’s hand and murmurs, “Never again war.”