The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is taking place the week of Memorial Day this year, and a fitting film opened the festival this evening. A packed crowd filled the Castro Theatre at the corner of Market and Castro to see All Quiet on the Western Front, a beautiful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic World War I novel and a powerful anti-war epic. The movie stars Lew Ayres and a cast of dozens of character actors, and is set in a bleak and devastatingly real German World War I trench.
Paul Baumer (Ayres) is a young boy in school in Germany, who is taught the glories of war by his teacher and decides to go into the German army to fight in World War I. Along with his schoolmates, he joins a battalion and is immediately sent to the western front to fight the Allied forces who are quickly advancing. There are gruesome scenes of war, death, and blood, showing the audiences the horrors of war in no uncertain terms. But at the same time, this is a story about brotherhood, friendship, and caring in the most hellacious place on earth.
By 1930, silent film production in the United States had essentially ceased. 1929 saw sound becoming industry standard, and the public began to accept and expect sound film as normal instead of a novelty. For the theaters that could not yet afford the expensive sound equipment that sound film required, many films through 1929 were filmed twice, once as a silent and once as a sound film. This was the case with All Quiet on the Western Front. By 1930 sound was a universal standard and it was unusual to film a movie twice, but the starkness, the power, and the gravity of All Quiet on the Western Front renders it ideal for the silent screen. Words are often superfluous in describing the horrors of war, and are unable to capture the pure terror and trauma experienced by soldiers in active combat. A simple glance, a look in the eyes or a wrinkle of an eyebrow can express more than a whole page of dialogue, and that is exactly what Lew Ayres accomplishes in this movie. There is no unimportant scene, nothing goes to waste in this beautiful, tightly woven, heartwrenching drama.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of the greatest festivals around in terms of programming. Festivalgoers can always count on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to deliver the best that silent film has to offer, and I very much look forward to the entire schedule this year.
See you tomorrow!