La Grande Illusion and All Quiet on the Western Front were both famous pieces of fictional art with very different perspectives of the first World War. During this war, there were over 40 million civilian and military deaths and 21 million wounded, being the bloodiest war to date at its time. Regardless of this number of deaths and injuries, both the book and the film struggle to put this in to perspective and change the view of war completely. As these pieces of work were made over 10 years after the end of the war, they may have had an impact on how people viewed the war, as many had their set ideas and feelings about the war. Both of these pieces have a somewhat ignorant view of war and fail to represent all aspects of it. This can be explored through the themes of culture, the representation of the enemy and fighting and gender. Firstly, the theme of culture is present throughout both of these pieces of post war art.
In La Grande Illusion there is an overwhelming sense of culture within all of the prisoners. This is represented through the culture of international fraternity, where all soldiers of different national backgrounds are able to come together in a prison of war camp regardless of which nation they belong to. This comradeship is created through a common interest of escapism and the common humanity of men. The following exchange between two main characters shows this international fraternity. ‘Capt. de Boeldieu: Why did you make an exception of me by inviting me here? Capt. von Rauffenstein: Because your name is Boeldieu, career officer in the French Army. And I am Rauffenstein, career officer in the Imperial German Army.’ Through this exchange we can see that the divide in their nationality does not stop them from being able to maintain a friendly relationship. This fraternity is present amongst most characters and their common appreciation for good food. This fails to represent war adequately as many people believe that there should be a natural divide between opposing forces during war and this specific relationship goes against that. It also represents war in a very poor war as the conditions in prisoner of war camps were commonly known to be poor and the aspect of having luxurious foods available is unrealistic.
In comparison to this high-spirited culture in La Grande Illusion, the culture is represented in a much different way in All Quiet on the Western Front as the feeling of comradeship is not present and is seen as not real. In fact, the culture is much more sombre and there is no sense of community and national spirit as perceived in wartime. In this book a contrast of culture is represented and highlighted through the divide between soldiers and civilians. When Paul returns home he is greeted by many people who do not understand what war is like and therefore give an ignorant opinion on war conditions. ‘Well, you’re just back from the front? How’s the morale out there? Pretty good, pretty good, eh?’ This friendly and naïve encounter shows that the understanding of war of poor from those not on the front and that there are many conflicting cultures within wartime. The way that culture is portrayed in this book fails to represent war adequately because the naïve nature of the civilians are over-exaggerated as there was much more respect and consideration for those coming out of a real war situation. To sum up the theme of culture, both pieces of art have represented culture in very different ways; one shows an overwhelming sense of comradeship, whereas the other shows a conflict between different wartime cultures.
Regardless of this aspect, both presentations of culture fail to represent war adequately as the culture would be seen as more gritty and gruesome in comparison to the somewhat ignorant views that are highlighted in both of these pieces. The representation of the enemy and fighting in both the film and the book are important when assessing whether these pieces of fictional art represent war adequately. In All Quiet on the Western Front it is clear to see that the enemy is not the obvious opposing side of the war, but truly, death; this is represented through the passing on of Kemmerich’s boots. The presence of an opposing side is one of the main aspects that is missing from the book. As the book is a historical novel about the war in which two sides fought against one another, there is surprisingly no real enemy involved. This can be highlighted in the scene where Paul is faced against a French soldier, accidentally killing him, being his first time that he has killed. He explains much anger and mistake for this accident but feels no sense of national duty, thus removing the national identity of war and also the main element of the need to fight. In contrast, the enemy in this book is portrayed more as the main characters’ commanding officer, ‘Himmelstoss’. They have no respect for his authority, which is seen throughout the book. One example of this is when Paul sees Himmelstoss in combat: ‘His eyes glaze over, and I bang his head against the wall – ‘You Sod’- I hit him in the ribs…’ In the eyes of the main characters, he is the enemy. The lack of respect for his authority completely undermines the model of war and is a contributing factor to why this book does not represent war adequately.
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