An unknown masterpiece, cablecast early Saturday morning at the ungodly hour traditionally reserved for such treasures, Austrian director G.W. Pabst’s first talkie—released in 1930—is a World War I movie far superior to the same year’s
All Quiet on the Western Front. The always protean Pabst made a brilliant adjustment to sound. Despite the crudeness of the available technology, Westfront 1918 is at least as audio-innovative as Fritz Lang’s
M in its brilliantly extended, existential battle sequences, thudding sense of the material world, and close-to-overlapping dialogue. (The first words heard in this exceedingly bitter and uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian German movie are in French.)
Even bolder than the use of sound is the way in which Pabst makes monotony and terror tangible, returning again and again to ponder the scarred and denuded deathscape of the trenches.
Westfront 1918 feels as much lived as acted. Indeed, Siegfried Kracauer (who reviewed it for the Frankfurter Zeitung
in 1930) praised Pabst for making something like a historical document: “Already a generation has reached the age of maturity which does not know those years from personal experience. They have to see, and see time and again, what they have not seen for themselves.” And so it goes.