Remarque radio play: only one episode of the eternal war

Radio Bremen has staged "Nothing New in the West" as a radio play for the first time. An unusually late tribute – which dispenses with any topicality.

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize: Erich Maria Remarque in Davos in 1929. Image: German Federal Archive/Wikimedia Commons

The central artifice of the audio production of Erich Maria Remarque’s "Nothing New in the West" is the splitting up of the main character: "Life has turned us into thinking animals," says narrator Paul Baumer. And a slightly different Paul continues, "It has imbued us with dullness." That he is jaded by the horrors of World War II is not to be heard in this thoughtful passage. Patrick Guldenberg speaks no less than three Pauls in the radio play from different rooms – the character breaks down into the aspects of his personality.

It comes surprisingly late, this first professional radio play version of the anti-war classic from 1929. The elaborate production directed by Christiane Ohaus will experience its premiere broadcast on Friday on Radio Bremen. Late, but still with an occasion: 100 years ago the First World War began. This date alone illustrates the historicity of the material. Unfortunately, the radio play version by Matthias Eckoldt is not able to detach it from this. In Paul’s endless monologues, it shimmies along Remarque’s text. The other speakers comment in only short snippets of dialogue, giving key words for Paul the soldier’s reflections.

It is his own war experiences that Remarque, who lives in Osnabruck, puts into the mouth of his narrator. In the war of position on the Western Front of World War I, he reports on his patriotic teacher who mobilized the entire class to volunteer. The story leads from basic training to home leave to the military hospital – and back to the front, where Paul is the last of his class to die. On a day about which the army report says there is "nothing new" in the West.

The literary quality of the original lies in the ambivalence of this figure of a soldier brutalized by the everyday life of war, who is both a reporter and a reflector of the so-called primordial catastrophe of the 20th century. These elements have now been dissected – into Paul one to three. Guldenberg speaks them on different sound tracks, which now and then overlap or communicate with each other as echoes. Craft-wise, this is excellently done, both technically and in the voice modulation of the speaker. Only: what it is supposed to do remains completely unclear. To emphasize ambivalence through separation is a platitude – at best an analytical finger exercise in German class.

In other respects, too, the war reporting, inscribed in literary history because of the drastic nature of its portrayal, falls short of the medium’s possibilities. The horror of the gas attack, for example: quiet rattling in the background, sounding like an unpleasant throat disease at worst. There is no vomiting. The horror remains suspended in Remarque’s words and intangible in the scene.

Nevertheless, the radio play also has oppressive moments. The narrators certainly know how to convey the suffering of their characters. Spoken momentary impressions of their suffering merge into a jumble of ambient sounds in stereo: a drone, perhaps war machinery. But perhaps also a symbol of the soldier’s psyche. The narrator names more concrete sounds only in words. He learns to distinguish the projectiles according to whether they "whistle," "boom," "clang," "howl," "hiss," or "screech.

Not being specific at this point is a strength of the piece. Unlike other modern radio plays, which increasingly sound more like the soundtracks of films, here a sound world is created that allows language its place. This avoids competition with film. For film has long since established itself as a powerful force in the genre. At the latest with Hollywood productions such as "Saving Private Ryan", which deals with the Second World War, but is dominated by a universal media image of war.

In the radio play, only the introductory idyll with birdsong conveys real impressions – and these are also crushed acoustically by the force of the war. Above this are the reflections of Paul number three. His critical self-awareness distinguishes the text from those such as Ernst Junger’s Stahlgewittern, after whose meditations on violence the rushed rattling off of catchwords initially sound: "Trommelfeuer, Sperrfeuer, Handgranate, Gas.

The contradiction between testimony and analysis is what makes the original and the production so exciting. However, the literary work was received, criticized, and burned by the Nazis as a political work: the lack of supplies and rations implicitly refutes the legend of the stab in the back. According to it, the army, "undefeated in the field," had lost only through political treachery. Equally controversial was the sober desacralization of the killing, to which the churches also mobilized from the pulpit.

Almost a hundred years later, these are historical marginal notes of an episode of the eternal war. And this is also how the production deals with it. And yet the latter debate in particular is burning with topicality. Not only because U.S. war operations are accused of being "crusades. Much more drastic is the Islamist sanctification and aestheticization of death, both one’s own in the jihad and that of the victims, whose decapitation is placed on Youtube with a sense of victory.

There, the play could have been given topicality if it had been more courageously detached from the attempt to stage it as a classic. The death in the play is a passionately breathed exit – in the worst case still rounded off by melancholy music. In this way, the First World War actually becomes an episode. One that, thank God, is over.

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