The First World War is raging, it is 1918, and at the Western Front the German infantrymen are wondering if this ordeal will ever be over. Some seek a brief respite from the conflict in the nearby French villages, and the barmaid Yvette (Jackie Monnier) is more than pleasant company as the soldiers playfully fight for her attentions - rather that than fight for their lives in the trenches. But as they begin to forget the reason they are there, abruptly the lights go out and a huge crash is heard: yet another missile from the French Army, who are attacking with renewed strength. Back at the heart of the combat, the Germans' morale is at an all-time low, as if the troops are aware this is the end...
Westfront 1918, which essentially translates simply as The Western Front 1918, was a film made at the same time as a better-known blockbuster from the United States that similarly took it upon itself to depict the Hell of the First World War in the hope that the planet would never have to go through it again. That film was the like-titled All Quiet On the Western Front, but it was sadly telling that director G.W. Pabst, here making his first sound film after a wealth of success as a silent filmmaker including making Louise Brooks a star, saw his efforts fall on deaf ears within a short space of years as the Nazis banned it with undue haste: they did not want any movies in circulation that reminded Germany of their crushing defeat.
Not only that, but also depicted were the dreadful conditions all over Germany, as seen when the closest this came to a subplot raised its head when one of the infantrymen, Karl (Gustav Diessl), returns home on leave as a surprise visit and finds his wife in bed with the butcher boy, which makes it more of a shock visit for all concerned, particularly as he is still carrying his rifle when he walks in on them. The point was not that the wife had given up on her husband and sought solace in the arms of another man, but that this was the only method she and countless others had of gaining enough food for the table, and it was simply unfortunate that Karl had arrived at the precise hour he did - bad luck has ruined his marriage.
It was more than that, however, as Pabst was keen to put across the devastation the war inflicted upon the ordinary German citizen. The authorities were barely characterised, barking orders and strategizing, but uncaring for anything except making progress as the bombs rain down: we are supposed to be pleased when one of their assistants manages to smuggle some of the better food they are given and offers it to a conscript who is dead on his feet through hunger, and you may well be, only the overall atmosphere summed up by the final line of one of the injured and soon to be dead troops we have been following was all too clear: "We are all guilty!", placing the blame for the terrible consequences on those high up and those lower down who supported them without thinking anything through.
The theme was that if anyone in Germany had any idea of how awful the war would be before they started it, they would have simply refused to go through with it and rejected the ruling classes and their appeals to patriotism that simply bred death and destruction across the globe. Therefore Pabst in no way stinted on the depiction of exactly how bad events would become, with every move towards lighthearted behaviour shown up as the foolish actions of people who had no idea of what was really going on: there was a show put on for the troops that featured a clown and a singer, and the soldiers are entertained for a while, but then have to respect the fact that they are heading for a premature demise, and laughter is not the correct response, or if it is, it is the response that will never overcome that spectre of miserable death hanging over them. In its stark manner, Westfront 1918 rendered a very realistic battle front, as good as newsreel footage in some cases, but whether you would watch it for enjoyment is another matter. As a film, it was a sobering slap in the face.
[Eureka have released this on a double bill, single disc Blu-ray with another Pabst early sound film, Kameradschaft. A booklet is included. The quality is surprisingly good.]