“You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you?” Into the meat grinder, boys: Warmongering elders in small-town Germany hype up service in the Great War as the ultimate honor, and their unsuspecting broods march eagerly into the first mechanized conflict of the new century. Their reward? Constant artillery bombardment, a nonstop jackhammering of machine-gun fire and feverish huddling in the muddy squalor of frontline trenches. The neighborhood postman’s new army rank unleashes his inner sadist; friends lose limbs while doctors shrug; landscapes are nothing but wastelands.
One of the earliest antiwar films and an urtext for all those that have followed, Lewis Milestone’s beautifully brutal adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s harrowing novel is a spry, feisty 82-year-old bruiser of a movie. This is protogenre, an undiluted dose of outrage and alarm that uses war not as a set of tropes but as the raw material to create a portrait of extreme trauma and dumbfounding existentialism. Milestone’s directorial style (honed by the silent era) is strikingly modern, too, exploiting sound and image to liberate the story from its literary roots and convey an experience of anguish that words cannot express. The despair—and the artistry—is breathtaking.