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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.