All Quiet on the Western Front

Content Caution

We see the hopeless, muddied face of a German soldier in WWI.


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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Green. Warm. Barely worn.

Paul Bäumer sees the name stitched on the uniform label—Heinrich—the name of someone else. Standing in line, in his underwear, he shows the name to the official who gave it to him. The uniform, Paul says, must belong to someone else.

“Probably too small for the fella,” the soldier says. “Happens all the time.” He rips the nametag off the uniform and lets it drop to the floor—joining dozens of others that lay scattered at his feet.

The uniform wasn’t too small for Heinrich. But it doesn’t belong to him. Not anymore.

While Heinrich never came back, the uniform did. The bullet holes were stitched shut. The blood was bleached away. Here, in World War I, the uniforms last longer than those that wear them.

They must. Wool is scarce. Men are not.

But that is changing. As the Great War grinds on in 1917, it grinds up the youth of Europe. Paul is part of a dwindling generation, sent into battle carrying little more than patriotic fervor.

“You have a chance to earn the right to wear the uniforms you’ve been given!” Paul’s teacher exhorted his class just days earlier. “The future of Deutschland lies in the hands of its greatest generation!”

And so inspired, Paul and his friends signed up. No matter that Paul was 17—too young to volunteer without his parents’ permission. No matter that his parents never, ever, would’ve given that permission. But the German army isn’t rigorously double-checking parental signatures these days—not with the war in its fourth year. One forged signature later, and Paul’s a soldier, marching proudly to the front.

The uniform has seen more of battle than young Paul has. In its fabric, perhaps, memories stay stitched. The mud, the blood, particles of mustard gas, the ever-so-faint stench of burned flesh.

Paul sees not: He only sees the road ahead this bright sunny day, as he and his closest friends march to the front. He hears only the songs of his fellow soldiers, ready to kill some Frenchmen. He smells only glory.

Soon enough he’ll smell what war truly stinks of.

Positive Elements

All Quiet on the Western Front is as scathing an indictment of war as you’ll ever see. And perhaps that observation in and of itself is a back-handed positive. To be reminded of war’s horrors is also a reminder not to jump lightly into conflict.

But in the midst of war, people (all men, given the movie’s 1917-18 timeframe) bond together in ways that, perhaps, would be impossible in peacetime. When soldiers suffer through so much together—when they’re asked to save one another’s lives potentially with every sunrise—they become, very much, like brothers.

We see that here. Paul is “lucky” enough to spend much of his time in the war still with his best friends from school. But he also makes a new friend, too—perhaps his best friend. Stanislaus Katczinsky—“Kat” for short—has been on the front a little while longer than Paul and his schoolmates. He makes a special effort to help Paul, especially, acclimate to the front. Over time, the two become almost inseparable, and they do their own part to help each other and their mates survive each day as it comes.

It’s only much later in the movie that we learn how different Paul and Kat are from each other—so different that in peacetime, they’d likely never speak. When the educated Paul suggests they should hang out occasionally after the war, Kat reminds him he’s an illiterate cobbler. “What are we going to do?” Kat asks. “Sole shoes together?”

As the war winds down, we see some historical figures try to cobble out an armistice. Central in that drive is Matthias Erzberger (a real historical character), who does his best to end the war in order to save thousands upon thousands of lives. “Let us find mercy where we can,” he tells his fellow Germans, hoping the French will bend their Armistice demands a bit. “But for God’s sake, let’s bring peace.”

Spiritual Elements

That scene above isn’t the only time we hear Erzberger invoke God’s name. In real life, the political figure was a prominent member of Germany’s Catholic Centre Party, and the movie perhaps hints that Erzberger’s Catholic faith helps drive some of his ambitions to stop the war.

Other than that, though, faith suffers alongside the men.

Paul and his friends go to a Christian school—or at least so it would seem from a cross hanging on the window (which the audience stares at as the teacher thunders his martial pep talk).

The next time we see a cross on a wall is at a church serving as a makeshift hospital, filled with patients and limbs and blood and screams. We hear snippets of Scripture from the war-weary (and, for the moment, celebrating) soldiers, asking for God’s mercy and referencing the “Lamb of God.” It’s hard to tell whether these drunken, celebrating soldiers are being particularly devout: One rushes up to Paul and shouts, “Knock on the monastery door and you’ll find only thieves and scoundrels!”

We hear crude jokes and remarks that make allusions to both Jesus and the thighs of his mother, Mary. A German general tells his soldiers that God is on their side.

Sexual Content

During a lull, one of Paul’s friends, Albert Kropp, leaves with a trio of three girls. He returns late in the evening, carrying a handkerchief from one of the young maidens as a souvenir. He describes the quality of the woman’s skin to Paul and mentions her breasts, and Kropp’s friends pass around the handkerchief to smell and jokingly pocket.

Another friend of Paul’s, Ludwig, watches Kropp leave with the ladies, and he’s clearly wishing he was brave enough to join. (Kropp goes temporarily AWOL for the encounter.) He talks longingly of physical intimacy, telling his friends that if there was no war, he’d be quite active in that department. “I wouldn’t put on trousers for eight days,” he says. Later, Ludwig runs into a poster that depicts a young (clothed) woman. He tears the portion of the poster that features the woman and takes it with him. The poster fragment seems to become almost like a real woman to Ludwig, and when Paul eyes the “two” of them (perhaps wondering about his friend’s sanity), Ludwig asks Paul if he’s jealous.

We see men shirtless. There’s a reference to combing pubic hair. Kat describes how beautiful his wife is to Paul, and a letter from her may have a bit of a double entendre in it. Kat advises fellow soldiers to stick their hands in their underwear if they’re cold. An officer compares a dirty gun to a “dirty girl.”

Violent Content

All Quiet on the Western Front is about the horrors of war, and it depicts those horrors graphically. I won’t detail every moment of violence here; rather, let’s deal with the subject more broadly, while perhaps touching on a couple of the movie’s most difficult moments.

People—countless people—are shot and killed. More are sliced or stabbed, via axe, bayonet and dagger. The movie wants to make the carnage we see personal: The hand-to-hand battles here don’t feel so much like war as flat-out murder. (The movie contrasts these horrifically brutal scenes with moments spent with the German’s commanding general, who’s sitting by the fire and gorging himself on fine food. “It’s been 50 years of no war,” he tells an adjunct as he wipes grease on his pantleg. “What’s a soldier without war?”)

World War I introduced a legion of new ways to kill, though, and we see those in action. Soldiers get run over by tanks, and we see their bodies reduced to meat and squirting blood. Others are immolated by flamethrowers. Scores of bodies are found in a building—victims, we’re told, of a gas attack. Grenades are thrown and find their marks. Artillery rounds explode, sending people flying, both alive and dead. Buildings collapse on still-living soldiers. Some make it out, some do not.

Corpses (mainly of men, but also of horses) lie everywhere. One of Paul’s first duties is to take part of the German version of dog tags to identify the dead: He finds a friend of his, his face mauled by an explosion, a leg missing at the knee. Soldiers walk through pools of blood. Half of a human carcass hangs from a tree, 30 or 40 feet in the air. It was blown there, we’re told, by an artillery blast.

But that’s not enough carnage, apparently, to drive the point home.

In one excruciating scene, we see a French and German soldier fight in the crater left by an artillery shell. The German finally stabs the Frenchman several times, but the man won’t die. Instead, he chokes and gurgles on his blood until the German stuffs dirt into the man’s mouth. It’s still not enough: For minutes—perhaps hours—this small struggle for life goes on, The German holding his ears as the Frenchman gurgles, until the German decides to save the man instead. He looks at the bloody wounds, wipes the dirt from his face and around his mouth. Only then does the Frenchman breathe his last. The German finds his wallet, and a picture of the man’s wife and daughter.

In another scene, a wounded man (who bears some terrible injuries to his leg) receives food and a fork. He promptly stabs himself several times in the neck with the utensil, bleeding out as his friends try to save him and another soldier, cold-eyed, looks on—as if to say that such atrocities are as common as mosquitos.

Back at the Armistice discussions, Erzberger and others talk about the casualty rates of the war: About 40,000 soldiers died in the preceding weeks before discussions began. When one German looks at the Armistice and is aghast at the proposed conditions—that Germany wouldn’t be worse off if they just followed the war to its conclusion—Erzberger adds: “Except with a few hundred-thousand extra deaths.”

Crude or Profane Language

Most of the movie is in German, and there’s some discrepancy between what we hear in the English dubbing and what we read in the subtitles. With that context in mind, we’re exposed to two f-words and about 10 s-words. Also uttered: “a–,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” and the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused five times, once with the word “d–n.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Officers and government officials drink wine. During one scene of revelry, soldiers seem to be pretty drunk.

Other Negative Elements

Kat, Paul and other soldiers spend quite a bit of time talking while using the latrine. (We see their bare legs, but nothing else). Several people urinate, and one accidentally urinates on his shoe when his train stops unexpectedly.

Paul and Kat raid a farm a couple of times, once successfully making off with a dead goose. “When you’re starving, you’ll do anything,” Kat says. They’re hailed as heroes when they return with their booty.

A general makes a tragic, monstrous decision.


As the war drags to a close, Paul confesses to Kat that he’s worried about returning home. War has changed him. It has changed all of them.

“All anybody wants to know about are the battles we’ve been in,” he says. And both he and Kat know that what they’ve seen and experienced, they’ll never tell anyone. It’s too horrible. Too painful.

All Quiet on the Western Front comes, then, with an inescapable irony: The horrors that Paul would always want to keep hidden are the same horrors the film does its best to portray.

The original book, by Erich Maria Remarque, was published in 1929. And it’s just as bleak, just as brutal. Some European countries—often as they prepared for war—labeled the book antimilitary propaganda. Just four years after it was published, Germany’s new Nazi regime declared it “degenerate” and made it one of the first books to be thrown in its bonfires.

Certainly, both the book and the movie drive home the idea that war is waste: senseless, needless, immoral waste.

Perhaps there’s a place for such works. Certainly, All Quiet on the Western Front is a well-made film, achingly bleak and horrifically brutal as it is. But we know, by its end, that even if Paul survives the war, part of him will have died on that Western Front. The rest of him will be haunted by what he’s seen, and heard, and lost.

“We are forlorn like children and experienced like old men,” Paul says in the book All Quiet on the Western Front; “We are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost.”

If Paul is lost—if he wishes he could unsee what he’s seen—perhaps we, too, should be wary of seeing what he’s seen. Even on the safety of a screen. Even on the comfort of the couch.  

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.