Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Western Front, in Second Person Point of View

Talking with another writer earlier this week (who is doing AUT's Master of Creative Writing) about war scenes, I recalled a scene from the 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone's epic film of life in the World War One trenches, adapted from the novel by Erich-Maria Remarque.

The scene is one of the most famous of all war scenes, prepared with meticulous care and edited with real edge to create an unusual effect. The crew used cameras mounted on dollies on small railway tracks, and also overhead dollies to sweep across the landscape. This was all done on a 1:1 scale, with real actors, years before stop motion, then the CGI wizardry that followed.

The central shot is a sequence that intercuts between a 'looking in' shot to a German machine gun nest, and a 'looking out' shot from that same nest (and along the trench lines, framed with barbed wire) at the charging French infantry, who are cut to pieces. The thud thud thud of the machine gun and the squeal of artillery shells gives a frightening soundtrack.

The cutting, and the intimacy of the viewpoint serve almost to convert the sequence to Second Person Point of View, very rare in film. The viewer is forced to become the shooter, to be responsible for the shooting. This gives the scene rare emotional force. As it proceeds, the whole frame fills with smoke, almost turning the figures into ghosts.

Here is a link to the whole sequence, the machine gun segment goes from 1:21 to 1:58. It is stunning film making: raw, honest, confrontational.

This great film's final scene is also justly famous, and a beautiful and sorrowful metaphor. You can watch it here.

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