Reviews » Westfront 1918 - Vier von der Infanterie

The State of Delay

Westfront 1918

by Michael Litwack

Taking as its establishing shot recent considerations of the temporality of modern state violence, this article examines the figure of delay that binds together questions of state fantasy, national masculinity, and technological warfare within G.W. Pabst's pacifist polemic Westfront 1918 (Germany, 1930).

Westfront 1918 - Vier von der Infanterie - The State of Delay - Westfront 1918

In his anti-war classic, Westfront 1918 (Germany, 1930), Georg Wilhelm Pabst offers a trenchant critique of the atrocities of World War I by attending to the curious temporal pose of modern state violence.  In Pabst’s film, state violence emerges at the intersection between Paul Virilio’s “dromology” (1986), in which modernity, speed, technology, and war have become inseparable, and Lauren Berlant’s figure of “slow death” (2007), in which the temporalities of the ongoing and the quotidian testify to the materialities of being worn down as well as the work of ordinary fantasy in sustaining and reproducing the social. Tracking the lives and eventual deaths of four German soldiers stationed in France during the war, Westfront 1918 resists announcing any coherent demarcations between battle and home, war and peace, reality and fantasy, where in each instance the latter would function as the putative “solution” to the problem of former.  Instead, the film dramatizes a series of affective investments in the impossible promise of the good life after the war: an orientation toward hope and futurity always deferred under modern conditions of total war without end.  Nonetheless, while Westfront’s pacifist polemic compellingly locates the force of war in the pivot between the immediacy of technologized violence and the indirection of a distinctly modern anomie, the film’s critical refusal to identify with an optics of the nation-state is made possible only through the masculinist staging of anxieties over sexual and ethnoracial difference.

Back to the Front

Set on the Western Front during the last months of World War I, Westfront opens with the introduction of four soldiers: the Lieutenant, the Bavarian, Rolf the Student, and Karl, who assumes the position of pseudo-protagonist.  The latter three men are stationed in the occupied home of Yvette, a young French woman who is actively being courted by the Student.  The men’s leisurely games of cards and flirtation, though, are soon interrupted by an alarm that beckons the soldiers to battle. They soon find themselves under “friendly fire” and Karl and the Bavarian are almost buried alive in the trenches. Because the telephone lines are down, the Student volunteers to alert military headquarters of the misfire in hopes that he can see Yvette during his journey. After a brief encounter with Yvette, who begs him not to leave, Rolf runs into Karl on the empty landscape.

Sitting on the edge of a bomb crater, Karl and Rolf speak of emblems of the good life, discussing the luxuries that await them at home. A full shot of the desolate wasteland highlights the barbed wire fence placed behind Rolf.  In this scene of homosocial bonding, Karl mentions that he cannot wait to see his wife and Rolf intimates that he will soon marry Yvette.  Though Karl is slouched over and both are visibly exhausted, the men sit smiling; it is an episode of mutual fantasy wherein the soldiers attempt to reinforce each other’s feelings of hope and, more exactly, their attachment to feeling hopeful. “Boy, you hit the jackpot,” Rolf tells Karl when he announces he has received home leave. Despite their efforts to distract one another from the senselessness of the friendly fire that they have just endured, the mise-en-scène overwhelms the two men and renders absurd their rhetoric of women and food in a fantastical elsewhere.  In this radical discord between image and dialogue, Westfront already hints that any such easy demarcation between the horrors of (public) war and the plenitude of (private) familial life is merely a psychical defense against the terrifying knowledge that state violence cannot be contained by modernity’s ethos of separate spheres. To acknowledge the dissolution of the military/civilian and public/private distinctions would be to unhinge the intimate domains of heterosexuality and the home as viable shelters from the “external” threat of the Great War. 

When Karl later quips that the Student would not understand his desire to go home because he doesn’t have a girlfriend or wife, Rolf replies jokingly, “Yes I do.  Since yesterday,” implying that the uncertain conditions of war have mandated a new sexual ethics of compressed temporality. While this cheerful musing on Rolf and Yvette’s relationship impels a sentimental appeal to an impossible love unmoored by the impositions of national difference, this love itself is cast as inseparable from the events of war rather than located on a transcendental plane “outside” or “beyond” the real-time of modern violence. In acknowledging that Rolf and Yvette’s affair has been both orchestrated and overdetermined by another affair— that of geopolitics— the two men cannot, despite their best efforts, posit a mode of political transformation beyond the scene of the political or, put otherwise, extol the heterosexual romance as a way finally around the messy stuff of politics and history.

This dialogue between Karl and Rolf is then in many ways a classically normative staging of national manhood in which the soldiers bolster their masculinity by trafficking in images of the woman in her absence. But it is also a tragically optimistic drama of aspiration in which we witness the soldiers try to convince one another (and themselves) that a different life is waiting for them, suggesting that the promise of war and of nation is also one of affective belonging.  This compulsion toward intersubjectivity is marked prominently by the men’s dutiful eye contact: an obligation to one another that does not allow them to look down into the deathly abyss of the bomb crater that is only partially visible in the shot.  The outline of the imposing crater at once props up the soldiers and threatens to envelop them; it is the ghostly trace of war that contaminates their dialogue and collapses their rhetoric of futurity and meaning. This specter of the barely visible bomb crater also suggests an isomorphism between this hole of signification and the disorderly and disordering woman of whom they speak, whose “emancipation” from her deployed husband is later shown to have led to her corruption by those vices of modernity no longer circumscribed within the masculine arena of the front.  Thus, even as the men institute a sharp delimitation between the front and the privatized space of love and sexuality, the disjuncture between the scopic field and the men’s attempt to sustain a zone of the normal signals the breakdown of this very border and, with it, the men’s claims to bourgeois egoic integrity.  What is repressed in the field of dialogue hence re-emerges in the mise-en-scène.         

In this register, Westfront 1918 does not merely maintain, as has been argued by some critics, that the effects and conditions of war may be exceeded within “a past or future happiness, reason, and sanity” (Hüppauf 1993, p.63).  On the contrary, the soldiers’ very articulation of an always postponed happiness proves symptomatic of the ideological abstractions and impossible assurances of the nation-state that seduce its subjects to battle.  Westfront 1918 attends exactly to this subjective investment in the promise of war by posing Karl’s fantasy of an unscathed private sphere as that governing fiction which sustains him— even if only momentarily. When Karl and Rolf placate one another with talk of sex and nourishment, they are not referring to the bountifulness of another time and place but naming an impossible elsewhere whose impossibility cannot be named as such.  The already foreclosed promise of a space beyond, after, or outside the reaches of total war is then exposed as a more dispersed and perhaps subtler form of state violence: a strategy of interpellation by which the subject finds himself tethered to a vaguely-defined object (what Berlant might call a national fantasy of “belonging” and “happiness”) that he cannot control and most likely never will possess. The shot thus refuses to confirm this fantasy of fully agential subjecthood, highlighting instead the radical incommensurability between the men’s desires and the resistance of both the social order and the camera to movement.  This condition of constraint and confinement is ironically marked by the apparent limitlessness of the open front: the ensuing dread that accompanies the site/sight of an outside with no inside, of a purely smooth space lacking any interior refuge from the reverberations of total war.  For these men stuck on the front, the experience of war is not characterized by any immediate rupture but a temporal ongoingness, a precarious living-on that is both an anticipation and a mechanism of defense; indeed, movement cannot come soon enough.

Is She Really To Blame?

Given this figuration of war’s boundlessness as a structural impediment to the men’s (psychic, social, and spatial) movement, it seems significant that Pabst does not cut immediately to Karl’s homecoming but instead inserts a long transitional scene depicting the semi-public space of a U.S.O-style performance.  In this sequence of “morale management” (Terry 2007), we watch a female entertainer perform for a rowdy crowd of soldiers while dressed in a short dirndl. Although the dance begins with the highly eroticized woman showing off, as it were, for the soldiers, the camera soon tilts downward and fixates on the nearly mechanized precision of her legs.  Before the sequence moves from this full view of the woman’s body to her disembodied legs, however, the camera first cuts to a high angle shot of an older soldier gazing upward at the performer, hypnotized by her sharp movements.  The interspersed shots of the aroused soldier and the automaton-like woman culminate to render (male) sexual excitement indivisible from, and at the mercy of, the woman’s dismemberment into fast-motion machine-like parts and pieces. 

This intimate coupling between gendered military entertainment and military technology has not gone unnoticed by Virilio, who has asserted “the widespread popularity of striptease, with its allusion to film as well as sexual excitation, indicate[s] the scale of… technophiliac transfer in a society undergoing militarization” (1989, p.29).  Nevertheless, Westfront is insistent upon the precariousness of this technologically-inflected fetish.  Visualizing the woman’s transmogrification from an alluring object of scopic pleasure into a mechanical— almost weaponized— form, the state’s inhuman instruments of violence are both contained by and projected onto the proto-cyborgian woman.  As Barbara Hales (2010) has convincingly argued, post-war German anxieties over the technologization of industry and the increased freedom of women often coalesced in this monstrous figure of the “mechanized feminine.”  Following Hales, we might suggest that, as an ambivalent symbol of the “opposing forces of restoration and destruction” (p.314), the female performer emerges as a crude stand-in for both the promises and dangers of the state apparatus.  At once nationalizing the woman’s body (via the tradition dirndl) and emphasizing her elevated position in relation to the soldiers, Westfront’s critique of the statist drive toward violence thus comes to depend structurally upon this figuration of the grossly technologizing and corrupting effects of total war on German women.  This is not to say that the entertainer surfaces as a victim of war who requires paternal rescue.  Rather, the female dancer’s doubled powers of seduction (as national interpellation) and technical exactitude (as state mechanized mass destruction) serve to overidentify her movements with those of the nation-state, in effect collapsing the potentially castrating social, political, and economic consequences of war onto the technologized woman’s body.  This anxiety over the comingling and intermixing of woman and war becomes even further pronounced when Karl returns home from the front.

When Westfront 1918 turns from the battlefield to the city, Karl arrives at his apartment only to find his wife in bed with a man who we soon learn is the butcher’s son.  Without expression, Karl calmly states, “You two just go right on where you left off,” before exiting the bedroom to find his rifle.  Karl then demands that the lovers kiss as he holds the rifle-cum-prosthetic phallus at his midriff.  Betraying a masochistic compulsion to repeat this trauma of heteromasculine undoing, Karl spots the lover’s conscription papers that demand that he report to the front the next day, thereby activating an unwelcomed identification with his wife’s lover; he cannot shoot.  After the lover exits the apartment, an intertitle reads, “Is she really to blame?  He brought her food” and the wife exclaims, “But what’s a girl supposed to do— when she’s all alone in this awful city, with nobody to care?,” thus heralding a certain retroactive overinvestment in paternal authority, as if Karl’s presence in the home would have somehow secured the material and emotional resources she had so desperately lacked.  Resisting his wife’s attempts at affection, Karl soon leaves the apartment with his head hung low.  While the film then provides a mildly sympathetic treatment of the wife, stressing that she was coerced into having an affair given the wartime food shortage, it is nonetheless her adultery which disrupts Karl’s fantasy of a world away from war and directly compels him back to the front.  The next day he will be shot and killed.

Call Waiting

In Westfront 1918, the breakdown of the domestic sphere and its attendant disintegration of the male soldier’s sense of purpose and wholeness condition the critique of a related form of domesticity: the separation of the (domestic) nation from its foreign “enemy.” When Karl leaves his wife for the front he does so neither for the higher aim of national victory nor wartime glory but rather due to a more modest feeling of obligation to the other men: “I just can’t wait to get back in that good old trench.  To the kid and my other buddies.  Being up to your neck in mud with the other guys does something to you.”  Karl’s bitter assertion that being in the trenches did “something” to him indicates a turning point in the film: without the promise of heterosexual domesticity Karl has now abandoned the vision of a good life beyond war and thus redirects his energies into the homosocial unit (itself already a metonym for a kind of death).  The tension between Karl’s affectless mode of address and his genuine concern for his buddies marks what one critic has called Pabst’s “ambivalent approach to heroism” (Kester 2003, p.131).  Although Pabst details the horrors of a range of wartime atrocities—from gas attacks to the ruptured nuclear family— he preserves the humanistic possibility of male camaraderie, for it is finally a postnationalist masculinity that Pabst locates as the potential engine of resistance to war and its inhuman(e) technologies.

Indeed, in Westfront 1918, the source of battlefield violence is always located in an unknowable elsewhere, foregrounding the faceless state’s disregard for those individual soldiers for whom war is not experienced at a distance.  This striking motif of modern violence as fundamentally anonymous is emphasized not only in the high frequency of seemingly random explosions, but also in the commands given from German military headquarters via the electronic presence of the telephone.  As a medium that transmits information over long distances, the telephone plays a central role in Westfront’s disruption of the technological idealist notion that modern violence has been wholly dematerialized or, in Virilio’s parlance, “derealized” (1989, p.1).  Dramatizing the death and destruction propelled by an invisible voice that commands from afar, Westfront implies a quasi-internationalist class critique by contrasting the nearness of the putative French enemy combatants with the telephonic distance of state officers who, in Imperial Germany, were often of the Junker class. Westfront’s pacifist thematic is buttressed then not only by giving face to the victims of war but also by establishing the (male) soldiers’ authenticity by their proximity to the front.  By intimating that it is precisely through mediating technologies that the modern state has been able both to command and kill safely from a distance, Pabst recenters the object of the state’s operational gaze as the subject of the cinematic narrative.  This liberal humanist appeal to the singularity of the human against the facelessness of the nationalized and technologized war machine marks a certain refusal, in James C. Scott’s terms (1999), to “see like a state.”

Against the absent tele-presence of the commander’s voice (his imperceptible directions are rendered audible only by the Lieutenant who repeats his commands), Westfront posits the sharp cries of a wounded soldier that thrusts Karl back into the line of fire.  Upon Karl’s return to the front and only moments before the Lieutenant announces the commands of an anonymous German state official, Karl and the Bavarian are shown lying in a trench, listening to the unbearable screams of a suffering soldier unsure whether it is the voice of Rolf or that of a “Frenchie.” (Karl at this point does not know that the Student has already been murdered.)  When positioned against the paradoxical figure of the telephone that serves to connect various nodes of the war machine even as it further intensifies the disconnections between these nodes (i.e. by propping up a class system that structures who will live and who will die based upon proximity to the front), Karl’s identification with the suffering soldier despite his ambiguous national allegiance suggests a condemnation of nationalist fanaticism that only grows more apparent as the film progresses.  As Avital Ronell avers, “The telephone connects where there has been little or no relation, it globalizes and unifies, suturing a country like a wound” (1989, p.8).  Aligning the technical medium of the telephone with the fictive organicism of the territorialized and hierarchical military state, the proximate cry of the soldier comes to stand in for that which cannot be heard (or seen) by the sensorium of the state’s imperative of nationalist identification.  The scream and its reception thus pierce the suturing logic of the nation-state and its technological apparatus.  It also exposes the fiction of immediacy that underwrites the anxious state fantasy of pure communication without interference or delay.  The friendly fire that marks the first scene of battle in Westfront especially draws attention to these variegated calibrations of resonance of military miscommunication and technical imprecision; it is only for those who are not on the ground that telecommunication can be imagined as transparent, derealized, and devoid of noise or the possibility of failure. 

There is, however, one notable exception to this general anonymity of battlefield violence.  Interspersed between Karl’s arrival home and his departure, a Black-faced French-Algerian is shown crawling out from a trench, striking Rolf from behind and, after a brief struggle, drowning him in the mud.  In stark contrast to all other representations of violence on the front, which are highly mediated and impersonalized through the technics of tanks and machine-guns, Rolf’s death is depicted as a gruesome act of face-to-face (or, more accurately, face-to-back) combat.  This scene would seem to reference, metonymically, die Dolchstoβlegende, or the so-called stab in the back legend: “the widespread notion that Germany had lost not on the battlefield, but on the home front” (Goebel 2009, p.222). According to die Dolchstoβlegende, Imperial Germany’s defeat stemmed from being “stabbed in the back” by those unruly subjects who Foucault might term “the enemy within” (2003, p.262): women, socialists, and ethnic and racial minorities. While Westfront undoubtedly establishes a critique of national zealotism and Pabst himself is known to have flirted with socialist circles, when positioned against the film’s ambition of a cross-national male solidarity, the triangulated imbrication (if not homology) between the destructive woman, the murderous racialized other, and the state conditions the very emergence of the film’s internationalist and pacifist polemics.  In fact, along with the mechanized dancer and, to a lesser extent, the corrupted wife who incites Karl to his death, the orientalized hyper-violent Algerian surfaces as one of the only faces identified with an otherwise faceless state violence throughout the film.  The Algerian’s brutality is rendered particularly obscene in light of a sentimental closing sequence that reaffirms the imperative of male unity against state violence even as it announces the impossibility of ever neatly claiming an end to such violence under modern regimes of state violence.  On his death bed in the infirmary, Karl no longer dons his military uniform, intimating that in death national difference fades away.  Bolstering this thematic, a French soldier grabs Karl’s arm and mumbles “Me, I’m your comrade…not your enemy,” inculcating that an ethics of pacifism requires a rejection of the state’s imperative to distinguish friend from enemy. The film then closes with a startling intertitle that reads “ENDE?!”   The strange grammatical form of the intertitle— a declaration of closure punctuated by a glaring question mark— signals the deferral, if not the impossibility, of naming with certitude war’s finality in the age of total warfare.  In so doing, it troubles the presumption that wars, like films, necessarily hold conclusions.  By Westfront’s closing sequence the end of war remains both a question and a provocation for the spectator, suggesting the final violence of total war as an irreducible resistance to any attempt at closure— whether to state violence, the (male) ego, or cinematic narrative and representation. 

Westfront 1918 thus draws attention to those episodes of fantasy and attachment, abandonment and delay that underpin the modern state and its war effort.  Rather than offering deceleration as a necessarily resistant and anti-statist alternative to dromology, Pabst underscores the complex feedback between speed and slowness in the assembling of the war machine.  State violence emerges not only through an obligation to mobility but also through a series of blockages to movement and circulation by which the state kills but also seduces, mobilizes, neglects, and sometimes lets be.  Although Westfront agitates those fictions of nation that help activate the state’s muscle, the film’s pacifist appeal to a masculinity without (national) borders relies upon the institution and consolidation of other sociopolitical boundaries for its performative enunciation in ways often complicit with the hierarchicalizing logics of the nation-state.  By displacing the destabilizing effects of war onto the disordered and disordering Other, Karl attempts to redirect the failed promise of the nurturing national domestic sphere into an imaginary field of (pan-European) masculine wholeness.  In this respect, even as Westfront 1918 gestures at a need to trouble vigorously the nation form, the film remains stubbornly stuck in place. 




Works Cited:


Berlant, Lauren. “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)” Critical Inquiry 33.1 (Summer 2007): 754-780.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976.  Trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003).

Goebel, Michael. “Decentring the German Spirit” Journal of Contemporary History 44.2 (2009):221-245.

Hales, Barbara. “Taming the Technological Shrew: Woman as Machine in Weimar Culture” Neophilologus 94 (2010):301-316.

Hüppauf, Bernd. “Experiences of Modern Warfare and the Crisis of Representation” New German Critique 59 (1993):41-76.

Kester, Bernadette. Film Front Weimar (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003).

Ronell, Avital. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electronic Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

Terry, Jennifer. “Killer Entertainments” Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular 3.1 (2007).  Retrieved 15 November 2010. < projects/ index.php?project= 86&thread= Project Credits>.

Scott, James C. Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Virilio, Paul. Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Trans. Mark Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1986).

Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. Trans. Patrick Camiller (London & New York: Verso, 1989).


Westfront 1918 - Vier von der Infanterie -Pabst

Westfront 1918 - Vier von der Infanterie, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1930

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