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Shelf Life: “All Quiet on the Western Front”

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Francois Truffaut once famously said that all war movies are pro-war, because they make the action look exciting. But long before “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line” and even “Paths of Glory,” Lewis Milestone made “All Quiet on the Western Front,” an emphatic antiwar tome that then and perhaps now still ranks among the most powerful ever made. It’s actually hard to imagine, even now, a film which manages not even to honor the sacrifice of soldiers, and instead highlights the pointlessness of war, its physical toll, its psychological impact, and the immediacy of survival that gets forgotten among civilians’ ignorant rhetoric and politicians’ arrogant authority.

With those other, flashier, more conspicuously cinematic or more existential takes on war, Milestone’s film has been largely forgotten, and its legacy certainly wasn’t preserved through the years in which its distributor, Universal Pictures, re-edited the film and changed the director’s original vision. But now that it’s been restored and re-released on Blu-ray, does that version still retain the power that won it awards seven decades ago? We’re determined to find out in this week’s “Shelf Life.”


The Facts

Released April 21, 1930, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was immediately praised in America, but elsewhere in the world it was seen as propagandistic, criticized, and in some countries banned altogether. At the 1930 Academy Awards, however, the film won Best Picture and Best Director for director Milestone, and received nominations for Best Writing and Best Screenplay.

Commercially, the film’s box office haul is not publicly available, but according to IMDB, it earned $3 million in rental revenues opposite its almost $1.5 million budget. It was also re-released multiple times, although in several different formats: upon its re-release in 1939, anti-Nazi statements were read throughout the film, and subsequent versions were substantially recut by Universal, who changed content and musical elements against the wishes of Milestone. Before Milestone passed away in 1980, he requested that his original cut be restored, but it wasn’t until almost two decades later that the United States Library of Congress undertook a detailed restoration. In the meantime, it was added to the National Film Registry in 1990.


What Still Works

As a vivid and specific portrait of the horrors of war, “All Quiet” is a peerless film: from start to finish, it seems to comprehensively depict the perspectives – and subsequent truths – about the fates of young men who go to war. Early in the film, a boys’ high school professor incites his students to enlist and help the war effort, and their reactions vary from determined patriotism to abject terror to simmering resentment; even before the viewer has seen what “war is like” according to the film, there are multiple points of view about how it affects people, publicly and personally.

Once the teenagers head off to war, however, the film chronicles an escalating series of awful incidents, starting with the unpleasantness of their training, which is run by their local postman, now virtually crazed with power. He tortures them simply because he is in charge, and his mistreatment sets a tragic precedent for their subsequent adventures. Just minutes after they are shown arriving at the front, bombs drop on their company, killing dozens, and the survivors struggle to maintain their sanity as explosions ring out around them, and later, when they’re desperate from hunger.

The first big battlefield scene I both a technical and emotional marvel, as it puts the audience in the middle of the action and makes it as disorienting as it must be to actually be there as a soldier. Although the film was released in 1930, it manages to be surprisingly graphic, such as when a soldier reaches the barbed wire in front of the Germans’ fox hole, he’s hit by a bomb, and the only thing left are his hands, still grasping the wire. Later, one of the main characters dies, and he leaves to another soldier a pair of beautiful boots. But rather than the boots being some poignant tribute that gets recalled every few scenes until the end, there’s an immediate sequence in which one soldier after another dons the boots in different battles and dies, ultimately leaving them as an empty trophy on the battlefield.

Towards the end of the film, the main character Paul (Lew Ayres) returns home and reconnects with his family, friends and community members. At home, his mother still worries after him like a child, in a local pub, town leaders and politicians suggest he’s got no perspective on the bigger picture and suggest that he and the remaining soldier fight on despite that plan’s impossibility, and at his old high school, current students, looking more baby-faced than his class, brand him a coward because he discourages them from enlisting, citing how horrible the experience has been. Somehow, the film manages to provide a deeply sympathetic, unjudgmental and yet unflinching portrait of soldiers sent off to war, making Paul less a hero than a tragic figure who knows only too well of the horrors that await him, and the inevitability of succumbing to them.


What Doesn’t Work

While the film shows an early scene in which Paul’s mother frets of his enlistment and his father celebrates it, there’s relatively little in the way of set-up for the character’s family or interests. While this isn’t strictly necessary, the story introduces a few developments during Paul’s leave that do pay off, but because of the film’s laserlike focus on war itself, it doesn’t make much of an effort to show who these boys really were before they left, and/ or what they left behind.


The Verdict

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a film I admit I’d never seen before, but it now ranks among my all-time favorite war films, mostly because it is staunchly, consistently, brilliantly antiwar. And by that, I mean, not as a political point of view I share, but as a concept that’s executed; although Saving Private Ryan, which was deeply influenced by this film, always faithfully depicts the horror of the battlefield, it has a sense of sentimentality that always reminds viewers that what the soldiers are doing is noble and respectable. Milestone’s film doesn’t disrespect soldiers and their sacrifices by any means, but it also never portrays war with any sense of glory or virtue, and in fact emphasizes the pointlessness of waging war, sending young men off to their deaths, for any reason. And ultimately, its decision to depict this from the point of view of German soldiers in WWI is something of a master stroke, knowingly or not, because it truly allows audiences to see the universality of its condemnation, and tell its story in a way that forces them to identify and care for the people on screen regardless of their nationality, political affiliation, or philosophical disposition. In short, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is an epic tragedy, and one in which we are all complicit, by our very natures.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.