Recently restored and re-released with English subtitles, this 1936 film by Charles Willy Kayser is a curious blend of documentary and dramatic recreation.
Opening and closing with a strident, lyrical call to honour the sacrifice of those who served in the trenches of the Western Front, actual footage German and Allied is used to graphically depict the most appalling conditions imaginable. Men knee-deep in mud, shovelling in a pitifully vain attempt to clear it, sums up the futility of their plight in particular, and of war in general.
Squalor, terror and duty the common denominators for friend and foe alike.
In this regard, it is a paean to all forces rather than just one, and it is this aspect as well as its regular use of actual battlefront film - which sets it somewhat apart from other powerful, contemporary depictions such as Pabst's "Westfront" (1930) and Zöberlein's "Stosstrupp 1917" (1934).
Mud and monotony. Stoicism and sacrifice. Comradeship and card games.
And then there is the added dimension of air warfare. Recreated and dramatised exclusively from the German point of view, it depicts a more genteel, though nonetheless ruthless and unforgiving environment.
If criticism might be levelled at this gem of film-making, it can only come from a purely modern perspective. It is difficult to fault, simply because in and of itself, it is an important historical document. While from an "entertainment" point of view, the relentless repetition of artillery-fire, machine-guns, explosions and troop movements through trenches can quickly become numbing, the fact is that that was then the nature of warfare. For many in those original audiences, the scenes depicted would have been pages from their actual experience, twenty years before. Visceral in their power and impact.
And tragically, for many of them too, such terrors would soon be visited upon them again.
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