Sog.: dal romanzo Vier von der Infanterie di Ernst Johannsen. Scen.: Ladislaus Vajda. F.: Charles Métain, Fritz Arno Wagner. Scgf.: Ernö Metzner. Mus.: Alexander Laszlo. Int.: Fritz Kampers (il bavarese), Gustav Diessl (Karl), Hans Joachim Moebius (lo studente), Claus Clausen (tenente), Gustav Püttjer (l’amburghese), Jackie Monnier (Yvette), Hanna Hoessrich (la moglie di Karl), Else Heller (la madre di Karl). Prod.: Nero-Film AG. DCP. Bn.
With Westfront 1918 G.W. Pabst put a strong pacifist statement on the screen which was not liked by many at the time, and was banned immediately when the National Socialist dictatorship seized power three years after the film’s release. It was found then that this film “undermined the people’s will for defense”, and “endangered crucial interests of the state”.
Indeed Westfront is almost unbearably realistic in the depiction of war and battle, and must have been a shock to audiences to whom the sound of grenades and machine guns was literally unheard of – this was Pabst’s first sound film and it appeared in the spring of 1930, when sound was still a novelty in German cinemas. Even today the film is impressive in its gruesome, unforgiving realism, and denies us any deflection by even the smallest hints of romance or comic relief while we follow the four leading characters to their inevitable deaths on the battlefield. Siegfried Kracauer wrote a sceptic review, but in the end concluded that Pabst’s extremism was necessary. “A generation has already grown up which didn’t experience these years. They have to see, again and again, what they could not see for themselves. It is unlikely that what they see will deter them from doing the same, but they should know what it was like”. Kracauer also reported that many people fled the cinema complaining that they could not endure the film. “But they flee the image of the war in the same way that they usually also avoid the knowledge about how to prevent it”. In 1988 we worked rather hastily on a first attempt to put this film back together into a version as complete as possible. The restoration was then based on a dupe negative we received on loan from the copyright owner Praesens Film, into which missing scenes were inserted from a print received from East Germany’s Staatliches Filmarchiv. The result was a completed narrative, however the quality of image and sound still left much to be desired. Funding from the Federal Commissioner for Media and the Arts allowed us to revisit the restoration in 2014. We now based the restoration on the nitrate dupe positive exported to Britain in the 1930s, held at the British Film Institute. Unfortunately this material had been cut down considerably for British release at the time. Missing scenes were re-introduced from the Praesens dupe negative, from which we were also able to restore hundreds of smaller parts, even single frames where the film had broken. The almost fluid continuity of editing for which Pabst has always been famous could thus be restored. Major attention was also given to the restoration of the sound. As the surviving film elements are far from perfect in quality, the result is compromised even after applying latest digital methods, but is far better what we could do a quarter of a century ago.