All Quiet on the Western Front - Once Not So Quiet

On December 5th one or two hundred people left a movie
theater in Berlin, mostly silent and deeply moved
though the film they had seen was first released in
1930. This American-made epic had lost none of its
extremely emotional appeal. It was "All Quiet on the
Western Front" and the date of its showing here was no
coincidence. Exactly eighty years earlier, to the day,
Joseph Goebbels, later to become Hitler's notorious
propaganda minister, had led 200 Nazis in violently
preventing the showing of this same film. At the
shout of Goebbels, who was in the balcony, the Nazis,
storm troopers without their brown uniforms and some
of the many newly-elected deputies to the Reichstag,
blew whistles, attacked the rest of the audience and
then let hundreds of white mice out of cardboard boxes
to scurry through the rows. The police tried to
restore order, at least some of them did, but this
proved impossible and the showing was stopped. Then
five or ten thousand Nazis waiting outside joined
Goebbels in a march and rally in the downtown area.
The tumults continued for a whole week, after which
the Censorship Office, made up of Nazi sympathizers or
men fearing the growing Nazi pressure, bowed to the
demands of several pro-Nazi states to have the film
banned altogether in Germany. This was a first major
success of the Nazis and was accompanied by an obscene
barrage of propaganda against this "defamation of our
boys in uniform" by the "Jews in Hollywood" and in
Berlin's "elite" West Side.

A half-year later, after protests by prominent
writers, artists and anti-Nazi political figures,
permission was reluctantly granted to show the film to
small private audiences, but only in such a radically
cut version that much of the political punch was gone.
This strange law, a compromise applying to a single
film, was soon canceled, yet the attempted
conciliation of the important German market for
American films resulted in only cut film versions
being distributed to all other countries as well. The
film was totally forbidden in many countries,
including France, Austria and Australia, and was
eviscerated even in the USA, despite its two Oscars as
best film and, for Lewis Milestone, best director. A
final wish of Milestone was to have the film restored
to its original length and principles. It took two
decades after his death in 1980 before this was
finally achieved.

The film shown last Friday was the original, uncut
version with German sub-titles. Before it began, two
historians described what had happened in 1930, which
had made this a major step in the Nazi take-over of
German culture and, two years later, of the whole
country, resulting in the destruction of both. One
historian told the tragic story of Hanns Brodnitz, the
manager of the Mozart-Saal, which he had turned into a
leading art film center, highlighting such film greats
as the young Rene Clair ("Under the Roofs of Paris")
and Charlie Chaplin's masterpieces. But after the Nazi
attacks on his theater and the exploding level of
anti-Semitism in Germany he lost his job and, before
long, all jobs. His attempts to escape to the USA were
in vain and in 1938 he went into hiding. Only after
five years, when he dared to leave his last
hiding-place, was he caught and sent to Auschwitz,
where he was murdered in a gas chamber a few days
later. His autobiographical book on film culture
during Germany's Weimar Period (after 1919) was not
released in 1933 because of the Nazi takeover and was
soon destroyed, but a surprising find of the galley
proofs a few years ago made a new edition possible.

Two major thoughts certainly went through the minds of
many in the audience last Friday. One was a swift
understanding of why not only Nazis and not only
German super-patriots hated the film and its
terrifying portrayal of the horrors of war, with
occasional questioning by the soldiers as to why and
to whose benefit they are suffering, shooting and
dying. One scene, where the hero, played by Lew Ayres,
bitterly regrets killing a French soldier lying next
to him, is unforgettable. The glories of "fighting and
dying for one's country," so mercilessly satirized
and exposed by the film, went against all the efforts
by nearly every government in those years to honor
the dead in such a way that the next generation would
dutifully follow in their fatal footsteps.

The other thought surely going through the heads of so
many in the audience was not unrelated: They are at it
again! Not only the heavy-booted pro-Nazi groups
marching through one city after another in Germany,
for they are still a small minority and face
unrelenting resistance by anti-fascists. But even more
menacingly, troops are again being sent to fight in
Afghanistan and elsewhere, and when the metal coffins
are flown home they are met with rites and speeches
hardly differing from those in the years before and
between the two world wars and attacked in the film.
This month Germany's Minister of Defense, while ending
the draft, is creating a tough professional army with
the latest murderous equipment, ready to defend
"Germany's trade routes and access to needed raw
materials" anywhere in the world. His semi-prediction
of future conflicts was accompanied by his usual
slight and for some so frightening smile. Words like
Iran, Palestine, Yemen and Korea inevitably crossed
people's minds. Eighty years had passed, and what
terrible years some of them were, yet so many have
learned, or altered, so little. Aside from the
greatness of the film, it was thoughts like these
which made this event so meaningful and so disturbing.

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