Ghosts march in formation across the sky, each with his own cross to bear. Raymond Bernard’s unflinching and brutal depiction of unfettered nationalism leads to muddy trenches full of stinking corpses, a purgatory where no living man walks the scarred landscape.
Bernard’s opening credits juxtapose ghostly soldiers with their eternal burdens, rows upon rows of wooden accusations that rage against the dying of the light, identities reduced to embossed names, personalities erased from the scripture of life. Cut to: proud young soldiers marching off to war, crowds of old men averring victory and frenzied women clutching children, waving flags, promulgating the disease of nationalism to future generations.
A young soldier conscripted from law school becomes the common thread of the narrative. He is briefly introduced to his new unit, his shiny canteen, polished boots, and virgin rifle yet to penetrate its target; a point of humor among the veterans. From this group of disparate people, the story follows them through hellish battle with very little introduction or back-story to dilute the exposed raw nerve of this pacifist diatribe. The focus is upon the men asleep in their fortification awaiting night patrol or crawling through thick mud, never knowing the reason why, only to do and die. The war is seen from a personal perspective, not from an omniscient vantage point that attempts to make sense from the bloody chaos. The soldiers know one thing: follow orders and hope their superiors are making decisions that will end this conflict.
One suspenseful scene depicts the destructive military hierarchy that considers men expendable, as the Germans begin digging beneath the trenches to seed the mine with explosives. The echo of picks cracking stone reverberates throughout the fort every night but the French must hold their position…at all costs. The tension builds when the sounds stop, heartbeats thick in their throats awaiting the inevitable, their blood tainting the hands of the High Command who washes it away without thought. A ten day battle entrenches the men in a graveyard, which will become a home to many on both sides of the conflict. No reason is given for the battles, no strategy to charge, retreat, or hold position is explained to those who sacrifice, only to do what they are told.
Bernard’s breathtaking expressionist cinematography moves quickly through the trenches and wastelands, utilizing low angle shots and expert mise-en-scene to frame violent compositions. In one scene, a lump of flesh is revealed in a bright flare, its shadow sneaking across the blasted ground like a soul unwilling to leave its Earthly vessel, until it is once again swallowed up by darkness. This is a bleak and nihilistic film, as the best anti-war message is to depict the reality of war as murder.
Final Grade: (A+)