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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.19:1 Standard
  • German PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Hour-long French television broadcast of World War I veterans reacting to the film in 1969
  • 2016 interview with film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak
  • New restoration demonstration featuring Martin Koerber and Julia Wallmüller of the Deutsche Kinemathek
  • An essay by author and critic Luc Sante

Westfront 1918

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
1930 | 96 Minutes | Licensor: Janus Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #907
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: January 30, 2018
Review Date: February 6, 2018

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SYNOPSIS

G. W. Pabst brought the war movie into a new era with his first sound film, a mercilessly realistic depiction of the nightmare that scarred a generation, in the director’s native Germany and beyond. Digging into the trenches with four infantrymen stationed in France in the final months of World War I, Pabst illustrates the harrowing ordeals of battle with unprecedented naturalism, as the men are worn away in body and spirit by firefights, shelling, and the disillusion that greets them on the home front. Long unavailable, the newly restored Westfront 1918 is a visceral, sobering antiwar statement that is as urgent today as when it was made.


PICTURE

G. W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 makes its North American debut on Blu-ray with this release, which presents the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 2K restoration performed by Deutsche Kinemathek, using a transfer created from a 35mm duplicate positive held by the BFI and a 35mm duplicate negative from Praesens-Film AG.

The film is pushing 90-years so it is pretty much expected the materials will hamper things but the amount of damage that remains is shockingly little. Yes, there are noticeable tram lines, scratches, marks, and such but it is quite minimal, all things considered, and rarely impedes the viewing. The restoration notes point out the duplicate positive, made directly from the negative, is the best available source but pieces—from frames to whole sequences—are missing from it. The duplicate negative was used to fill in these places and thanks to the work that was put into this it’s rarely all that noticeable when we switch from one to another; on occasion contrast might darken a bit or the image will become a little softer but the shift is again not too drastic.

In all detail is good, even if the image is never all that crisp. That surely comes down to materials and has nothing to do with the scan or encode. But the image still looks very filmic in texture, and grain, though fairly dense, looks clean and is rendered incredibly well. Contrast is excellent, with deep blacks and sharp whites, and tonal shifts are clean. Topped off with a fresh encode with no noticeable artifacts you get an astounding final presentation that certainly exceeded what I was expecting.

8/10

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AUDIO

Coming with a lossless 1.0 PCM soundtrack, it’s limited a bit by age and the technology of the time. The sound can be very flat with little in the way of fidelity, yet despite this dialogue is still audible and clear enough. The film has some explosions and gunfire in it, naturally, but these are also incredibly flat, even hollow and tinny. They can also sound a bit odd, explosions cutting off suddenly, but this is most certainly by design, a byproduct of early sound effects. Outside of that, though, the audio has been cleaned up and I didn’t notice anything along the lines of pops or cracks.

5/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Released on Blu-ray by Criterion alongside another Pabst title, Kameradschaft, the two do mirror each other a bit in regards to supplements but Westfront 1918 comes with a very significant feature, a 71-minute November 12th, 1968 episode of the French television program Les dossiers de l’écran, which features a group of French and German WWI veterans together after an airing of Westfront 1918. The first part of the segment has the group address the authenticity of the film, most seeming to say it captured it well and the film did manage to bring back memories. Humourously an area one of the vets objected most to was the idea someone would desert over a woman.

Fascinatingly, though, the bulk of the program has the vets answering questions from people calling in, and this covers a large array of topics including the occasional truces they would have with each other (much to the chagrin of their leaders), when they started digging trenches, whether they fought using their bayonets, what gas attacks were like, and so on. The conversation is always fascinating, but unfortunately the host, who of course must keep the show going but within an allotted time, can be a bit of, well, an ass and comes just short of telling his guests to “shut-up” when getting them to move on. Past that it really is a wonderful feature, documenting first hand experiences of the war.

The 18-minute introduction from scholar Jan-Christopher Horak found on the UK Masters of Cinema release is also presented here. Horak explains Pabst’s intentions with the film, hoping a pacifist film would counter some of the anger and disenchantment that was being felt in Germany at the time (obviously it didn’t help). He also looks at it from a technical perspective (the use of sound specifically) and addresses All Quiet on the Western Front, which would have been released around the same time. Though not terribly long Horak does still cover the film’s production incredibly well, including its release, and provides some welcome historical context.

Following this is a short 3-minute excerpt from an audio recording Westfront’s editor Jean Oser sent in response to questions from film scholar Hermann Barth (who appears in the supplements for Kameradschaft). Here Oser quickly shares an anecdote from filming (locals thought they were doing military exercises), how the sound effects were created, and talks about a scene in the script that was not shot. This is then followed by a 9-minute restoration demonstration, covering the details from scanning to reinserting missing frames and general clean-up. It proves to be one of the more interesting features of this sort. Luc Sante also provides a short essay on the film in the included insert, going over Pabst’s career (feeling he is one of the more underappreciated early directors), the film’s construction, and makes comparisons to All Quiet on the Western Front.

I would have expected a few more academic items about the film itself but the collection of features are still great, in particular the television segment featuring the veterans talking about their experiences. That alone adds a great amount of value to this edition.

8/10

CLOSING

With its impressive restoration and a handful of engaging features—the archival segment featuring WWI veterans being the stand-out—this new release will make a great addition to one’s collection.


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