Depictions of The Great War: Film and Graphic Novel

Since translating a French military citation for a friend, I’ve been on a bit of a World War I jag. Both of my grandfathers served in the American military during the Great War. Yet, luckily for me, neither served as soldiers. One worked in a Washington bureau; the other drove an ambulance. They thus escaped their tours of duty relatively unscathed. I’ve long planned to read the latter’s copy of All Quiet on the Western Front. However, I recently learned that Netflix is currently offering an acclaimed German film based on the book. At nearly the same time, I was browsing the French collection in my local library and came across an intriguing graphic novel, Madame Livingstone, about a Belgian World War I pilot, fighting the Germans in the Congo. Below are my reviews of both accounts.

Elephants in the Congo
Elephants stampede as a WWI aviator flies over the jungle.

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet Book Cover

The novel All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929, was one of the first books to depict WWI in a critical light. Its German author, Erich Maria Remarque, based the story on his own experience as a German soldier fighting on the front lines in northern France. Remarque did not intend to make a political statement with this early book, which quickly became an international bestseller. He simply wanted to memorialize some of what he and other German veterans had experienced both during and after the war.

In 1930, Lewis Milestone adapted Remarque’s novel for the big screen and won Oscars for best picture and best director. The story was also recrafted for American television in 1979. The latest incarnation, directed by German filmmaker Edward Berger, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and is now available on Netflix. If you appreciate war movies or would like to know more about World War I, I highly recommend this adaptation. It is currently on the Oscars shortlist for Best International Feature Film.

All Quiet Publicity Poster

Ten million civilians and nearly the same number of military personnel lost their lives during the 4 years of fighting that spanned World War I, 1914-1918. Berger’s film focuses on the first part of Remarque’s book—the conditions faced by soldiers who were sent to the front lines. In an era where clothing, gear, and equipment were primitive compared to today, surviving all kinds of weather conditions in the barren battlefields of northern France was extraordinarily challenging even during the monotonous days and weeks that passed between battles. Add to that a shortage of food, an inexperienced fighting force, the constant threat of artillery fire and bombardment, and a poorly trained and equipped medical corps.

During the war, more than 700 million artillery and mortar rounds were fired on the Western Front, an estimated 15% of which failed to explode. It didn’t take long before each side found itself defending and advancing in a muddy, corpse-infested, minefield. Two million Germans lost their lives. Fifty percent of all Frenchmen between the ages of 19 and 22 at the start of the war were dead before the end. Yet, governments on all sides of the conflict characterized their involvement as patriotic and necessary. Berger’s novel clearly called this stance into question. By 1933, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, declared Remarque’s writing to be “unpatriotic” and banned all of his books.

WWI Western Front
Scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, currently available on Netflix.

The unparalleled loss of blood and treasure somewhat explains France’s early capitulation after Germany’s 1940 invasion. No one wanted to engage in another disastrous conflict. Scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front render such reasoning palpably judicious. They also elucidate the tormented thinking of absurdist philosophers like Albert Camus, who struggled to find meaning in human existence after decades of pointless casualties on the European continent.

I give Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front, 5 out of 5 stars.

Madame Livingstone

Madame Livingstone

Popular films and books that cover World War I usually confine their narratives to the trenches of northern France. Yet the conflict took place in many parts of the world, most notably the European colonies in Africa. Madame Livingstone, illustrated by Barly Baruti and written by Christophe Cassiau-Haurie, features the Anglo-Belgian offensive against Germany for control of Lake Tanganyika. This strategic body of water is the longest freshwater lake in the world. It is located between what was once the Belgian Congo to the west (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and German East Africa to the east (now Tanzania).

While the setting and other elements of the story are factual, many of the characters, including the book’s namesake, Madame Livingstone, are fictional. This intriguing central character is a mixed-race native of the Congo who wears a kilt and claims to be a descendant of David Livingston, the Scottish missionary and 19th-century explorer. His comrades in arms refer to him as Madame due to the nature of his chosen attire. Livingstone becomes the invaluable guide and partner of Gaston Mercier, a pilot in the Royal Belgian Air Force. Their primary mission is to sink a German ship called the Graf von Goetzen that was used by the Germans to ferry troops and cargo between Kigoma and Bismarckburg (now Kasanga, Tanzania).

WWI Battle Scene
A battle on Lake Tanganyika, scene from Madame Livingstone.

The storyline definitely held my attention but I found Cassiau-Haurie’s scenario to be a bit lacking. As I read, I continually wondered how much of the story was true and how much was invented. My frequent sorties to Wikipedia only partially addressed my many questions. The book includes a reference guide at the end that clarifies some of the historical elements. The last page reveals the inspiration for the book’s plot. Illustrator Barly Baruti was born Alexis Livingstone and has always wondered about the origins of his family name.

As for Baruti’s illustrations, it’s no wonder that he is perhaps the best-known African comic artist in Europe. Baruti’s frames capture Africa’s exotic magnificence and visually telegraph the tensions that existed between the native population and their European occupiers. In contrast to the putrid and perilous wasteland of the Western Front, the conflict in Africa seems tame and alluring. If it weren’t for the brutal and unjust domination of the local population, I can almost imagine myself enlisting in the fight.

WWI Hydroplane Over the Jungle
A Belgian WWI hydroplane soars over the jungle, scene from Madame Livingstone.

I give Bartui and Cassiau-Haurie’s Madame Livingstone 4 out of 5 stars.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

10 Comments

  1. There is an interesting and moving Erich Maria Remarque Peace Center in his home town of Osnabrück, Germany.
    https://operasandcycling.com/erich-maria-remarque-peace-center/

  2. Thanks, Carol. I’ll definitely watch the Netflix rendering. As to your wondering about the truth in the graphic novel, that’s a tension I feel I must set aside while reading historical fiction, though it’s valuable to have a guide to source material to check subsequently. I recently read Geraldine Brooks’s novel “Horse,” a masterful story about race in America. She’s a diligent researcher who provides notes about her sources and states where they lead to her imaginative flights.

    • When reading historical fiction, I have a strong need to know what’s real and what’s not. In the book The Alice Network, for example, the characters were largely fictional but many of the events were based on actual events. Once I know where I stand, I can relax. 🙂

      The idea that David Livingston might have left descendants behind in Africa is not surprising but I wanted to know whether this was true or not. While reading, I did repeated searches online without success, thus had to assume the central character was invented. Not until the very last page of the reference material was this made clear. I noticed that one of the reviews on Goodreads said, “based on a true story”. I wonder if that reader assumed that much of the plot was factual.

      • I certainly understand and share your strong need to separate fact from fiction, Carol. And if you don’t find that your searches disrupt the novel’s hold on your imagination, that’s great!

  3. Hi Carole. Have you read Beryl Markham’s “West with the night”? (One of the best books on Africa ever written…)
    Bon Dimanche

  4. The death and destruction of World War I is all the more hideous because there seems to have been no genuine purpose to it. World War II at least served an essential goal — preventing the genocidal regimes of Germany and Japan from enslaving huge areas of the world. In the case of World War I, the European governments seem to have blundered into it by a process of clumsy brinkmanship and escalation triggered by a mere terrorist attack in the Balkans, led by politicians who had no real idea what they were getting into. The lives of the dead were simply wasted, thrown away for nothing.

    It’s unsurprising, but characteristically dishonest, that Goebbels would denounce Remarque’s novel as “unpatriotic”. Very often the truest patriot is the one who stands up for his country against its own government, and the Nazi regime certainly would not have wanted that insight to be spread around.

    Reading about European countries struggling for dominance over a “strategic” lake in central Africa seems surreal today. What serious national interest of theirs was at stake? Yes, they were getting natural resources from the region, but they could have done that via normal trade. Today Belgium, Germany, and the UK no longer control any territory in central Africa at all, and they don’t seem to be worse off for it in any way.

    It’s in the nature of historical novels that they cannot be constantly flagging which details are actual history and which are part of the fictional story (this would apply to Remarque’s novel, since it is a novel, just as much as to Cassiau-Haurie’s). The most one can hope for is that they are highly realistic. In the case of a very recent and well-documented period such as 1914-1918, with a good author, one can probably trust those details which are not obviously strictly to do with the author’s fictional characters. In any event, the reader should be able to avoid problems by not taking novels as actual history to be cited as such, but relying just on real history books for that purpose, taking the novels as dramatization to convey the feel of the period rather than as pure description.

    • Excellent points Infidel. I’m reading To End All Wars by Hochschild. Did you read that one? He makes the case that England was looking for any excuse to go to war with Germany. Tragic folly to say the least.

      There are many graphic novels that aren’t actually novels but we don’t usually classify them into separate sub genres like graphical biography, graphical sci-if, graphical history, etc. It wasn’t clear in this case if the central character was based on an actual person or not. That character was so intriguing, I immediately wanted to know if he was based on a real person.

      I’m reading an excellent book of historical fiction right now called L’Art de Perdre, also available in English. It goes through 3 generations of a family starting out in pre-WWII Algeria and ending in modern-day France. It is brimming with historical background—incredibly well researched. In this case, it is clear that the characters and their lives are fictional composites but I’ve learned a lot from the book. It’s unfair to compare a graphic novel with a written one but I still think the author of Madame Livingstone could have given us more background information. A few more details might have elevated my rating of the book.

  5. Bonjour Carol,
    Je découvre votre intérêt sur le sujet de la Grande Guerre à travers cet article sur le chef d’œuvre de Remarque et cette étonnante bande-dessinée. Je me permets d’ajouter que, actuellement sur les écrans français on peut voir le film “Tirailleurs” avec Omar Sy, qui met en lumière le sort des troupes coloniales dans l’enfer des tranchées. Un film cinématographiquement inégal mais focalisant sur un point d’histoire trop souvent placé à la marge.
    Très bonne fin de journée.

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