Paul is a 19-year-old German boy who is enlisting in the army, along with six other of his classmates, partly because of the teacher’s continued pressure and partly to avoid possible criticism of cowardice at his country’s entry into the most important warfare fought so far.
Written in the first person, the text begins somewhat innocently, with the protagonists in the rear guard, receiving a double ration of food and tobacco, with the instruction of the troops and the only complaint referring to the end of the shift, which makes them pass by the simple fact to carry a gallon more than them. From there the work quickly darkens. They find out that the rations are abundant because the enemy charged half of the comrades attacking at the last minute, leaving only 80 of the 150 men who made up the company. The sergeant’s anger turns into cowardice at the moment of truth. And the first fallen compadre lies in the hospital with an amputated leg and, with the certainty of his death, it only occurs to them to take advantage of his boots for the next battle.
Little by little the boys’ innocence and vitality become dark. The new replacement brings them 25 kids, a year younger than them, but it looks like they are old war veterans already. The cruelty of the conflagration is taking over their bodies, breathing through their pores, entering through the skin, like the dirt and dirt that permeates the fields and trenches. When they go to the front for reconstruction tasks they suffer an attack and one of the young rookies opens up staining his new pants. Horses, so important to daily life, are slaughtered in the face of unleashed destruction so that they do not suffer and die dying of the injuries suffered.
The dehumanization of the soldiers is accelerated by the facts that the author tells us, highlighting the total chance that survival means, passing the bullets of the machine guns a meter more to the right or more to the left. The huge war rats take over the dead, gobbling up any food that comes their way, no matter how good a friend you are. Those passages are especially harsh, violent, bloody, and chilling, Paul losing some of his companions, completely transforming the purity with which they came to contention.
When she travels home on a permit, she is very hesitant to find those who are still there alive. At home she is totally out of place, she does not know what to do, she is no longer the same one who lived there. His mother is ill, but Paul is far away. Returning with his companions, he finds his place again.
Another of the most difficult and philosophical moments of the work is when, when killing a Frenchman in a crater opened by a shell, he falls apart and asks himself all those questions that make wars incomprehensible. They are moments of incomprehension, of moral apathy, of total loss. The young Frenchman is also a poor village worker who has to support his family, who, like him, have almost been forced to wage that war that he does not understand.
Two friends help him out of there, but they are hurt and taken to a military hospital, where his partner loses a leg and the will to live. He, once cured, returns to the front, and it is the harsh reality that ends with all his classmates, the beardless veterans, until he was alone in the autumn of 1918, waiting for the armistice to end that madness, resting in a garden a few days for having inhaled a little gas. Shortly afterwards a small note indicates that it fell in October 1918, without incident on the front.
Erich Maria Remarque, pseudonym of Erich Paul Remak, relates in this novel his participation in the First World War, without avoiding a gram of suffering and pain to the words he uses to tell the reason for the war. His crude and direct style earned him the visceral hatred of the Nazi party when he ascended to power, so he had to flee to the United States, acquiring American nationality in 1947. Shortly after, with the fall of Nazism, he returned to Europe with his wife. , the actress Paulette Goddard, leaving for posterity one of the greatest works of pacifism and world anti-warfare.
The film adaptation was made by Lewis Milestone in Hollywood, from Universal, with a rather unknown cast, and a very successful adaptation of the novel, the work of George Abbott, Del Andrews and Maxwel Anderson. It was a great success and he won 2 Oscars, the best film and the best director, putting the anti-war message of the novel on everyone’s lips.
Filming begins in town, by day, with light, flowers, smiling young people, clean, perfectly groomed and shaved, where the school teacher proselytizes with military, populist and fervent speeches for his students to enlist. The postman of the town, deals his last letters and says goodbye to his neighbors, is in the reserve and they have also called him.
When they arrive at the training camp they are still excited, innocent, and the postman is now Corporal Himmelstoss, in charge of preparing them, crushing them without stopping and removing the bile and envy that he carries inside against them. They arrive at the front and it is already night, raining, it is full of mud and dirt, food is scarce, it is cold and it is dark. Everything has changed and Milestone transmits it perfectly the first time. A trio of veterans take care of them, especially Kat, the one in charge to look for food for the group. Louis Wolheim is fantastic in that paternalistic role, with charisma and an unbeatable friendly presence. They send them to wire and suffer the first bombardment, and the first casualty, Ben, who didn’t even want to enlist. Follow the night, and the fog, and the rain, and the mud, and the mud, and the dirt, more and more. The boys are already bearded for a few days, dirty, cold and exhausted gestures.
The fighting, the casualties, the psychotic paranoia of war, the rats that invade everything, death. One of the great successes is the presentation of the war by Lewis Milestone, very realistic, with large travellings over the crowded trenches, the constant bombardments, the advances and returns of the troops, the constant hammering of machine guns, the appearance of planes in battle, barbed wire, death. The company remains in the middle of those who initiated the action and are fighting to double the food ration by being fewer mouths and the same food, while considering the reason for the wars.
Kemmerich is seriously injured and they go to see him in the hospital, where the beds are glued to each other and the doctors and nurses go endlessly from side to side, without rest. Finally he dies and gives his boots to a friend who asked them for them, but they go from one foot to the other, from one dead to another. This chain of images of deaths, without the need for weapons, blood, close-ups or to accentuate the drama, shows that the director deserved the award received.
The conversations in the barracks are another of the strong points, changing from the first day, when they are many and novice, until now when they are much less and the initial themes are inconsequential and totally change. The script continues very well, without sparing the cruelty and disappointment that the novel conveys, the line marked by Remarque, with the cowardice of Himmelstoss or the guilt and total misunderstanding of Paul when killing a Frenchman in a hole to save his own life.
The scenes in which they go to the river to bathe and meet some French women who ignore them until they are taught food, are so human, so close, so basic, that they erase with a stroke of the pen all the thoughts that made them run to enlist. In the end, as many of them as they are, German soldiers as French women, seek to survive, food, warmth, humanity.
Paul also ends up going through the hospital after being injured in the arm, and when he recovers, he goes home on leave. Perhaps it is the saddest moment of the entire film, because he is at home, with loved ones, with his sick mother and all his past life, but he is so different from the boy who lived there, so alien, sad and empty regarding to what it was, that he has no choice but to go back to his companions.
Only Tjaden and Kat are left in the front along with a bunch of 16-year-old rookies. Kat is looking for food for everyone and goes after him, but when they return they hurt him. Paul carries him to take him to heal. Friendship and camaraderie can cope with everything … except death. War is death, and death does not make prisoners, not one. Everything remains the same, without incident on the front.