- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

ERICH MARIA REMARQUE: THE LAST ROMANTIC

By Hilton Tims

Carroll and Graf, $26, 240 pages

REVIEWED BY TOM O’BRIEN



Erich Maria Remarque wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929), a classic that inspired the first mass international peace movement; for that alone he is worth remembering. The book caused a sensation. In Germany, over three million copies were sold within 18 months; in America, it led to a film that won the Oscar for Best Picture (1930). Despite its age and historical references, “All Quiet” remains a winning assignment in almost any classroom — even among those students, mostly males, whom TV has immunized against literature.

In “Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic,” British journalist Hilton Tims richly details a fascinating life; the subtitle is courtesy of Remarque’s favorite fraulein, Marlene Dietrich, pictured with Remarque in a dazzling cover photo. Born in Osnabruck, Lower Saxony, in 1898, Remarque survived the horrors of World War I (enduring Paschendaele), enjoyed Berlin’s naughty “cabaret” life in the 1920s and, after the Nazis gained power, fled into political exile.

As Mr. Tims reports, Remarque escaped first to Switzerland, then the Riviera (where he met, among others, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and son John), and then to California, where he romanced (among others) Paulette Goddard, whom he eventually married. He died in 1972.

In Hollywood, Mr. Tims shows, Remarque did not fade away but numbered among the many European exiles to write screenplays (e.g., Billy Wilder) or populate them (e.g.. most of the cast in “Casablanca,” even Maj. Strasser). Indeed, Paul Heinreid (the film’s resistance hero, Victor Laszlo) befriended Remarque again in Hollywood. They were acquainted before in Berlin, where Heinreid — a publisher as well as actor— had printed a deluxe edition of “All Quiet.”

Mr. Tims’ biography abounds with such rich detail. The book is star-studded and glamour-filled, but is less gossip than fascinating cultural and film history. It was Remarque, Mr. Tims says, who got Dietrich back in business again when, after some flops in the early 1930s, she took his advice and grabbed the offer for “Destry Rides Again” (1939). Without Remarque, we might not know “what the boys in the back room will have.”

The book is well researched, but rarely flags (as many biographies often do) under the weight of Mr. Tims’ study. The text reads fast and mostly well. Of course, not every author has this kind of raw material. Just consider the cast around Remarque in 1920s Berlin. He knew so many superstars that, when reading one chapter, I thought I was in a movie: Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Leni Reifenstahl (later, Adolf Hitler’s documentary maker), and of course Dietrich, with whom he carried on a life-long, intercontinental affair.

As Mr. Tims acknowledges, Remarque liked his share of schnapps. He liked sleek cats and cars — the more futuristic in design the better — and he liked sleek women. In the letters and diaries that Mr. Tims mines for nuggets of gold, Remarque calls the Lancia that he drove around Switzerland “Puma One”; Dietrich is “Puma Two.”

After their first close encounter, he became “just good friends” with stars such as Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez, and even Greta Garbo — that one really irked Marlene. Did I neglect to say he had an “open marriage” with a German actress who followed him into exile? Mr. Tims’ book could have used a film subtitle — “The Man Who Loved Women.” Besides his fame and savoir-faire, Oscar-winning actress Luise Rainer said, Remarque knocked actresses silly with his humility — a killer trait in Hollywood, the capital of Ego.

Not that he was happy. As Mr. Tims shows, Remarque had even more sexual problems than his promiscuity and drowned them in liquor. His life both in Hollywood and Berlin’s real “Alexanderplatz” echoes Falstaff about too many nights on the town: “We have heard the chimes at midnight.”

Remarque wrote some solid books about exile, a number of which became films (“Arch of Triumph,” with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, another refugee pal). The book was a success, selling two million copies in the America alone. Remarque appeared in a film based on his “A Time To Live And A Time To Die” (1953) about World War II which he watched from a distance.

But, as Mr. Tims stresses, Remarque’s masterpiece was “All Quiet” (“Im Westen nichts Neues”), based on his WWI experiences after leaving school in 1916. His spare style — like Ernest Hemingway’s — comes from journalism, which Remarque plied through the 1920s. As Mr. Tims notes, the title doubly puns, first by hinting at the understatement that rules the book: Remarque felt only unadorned truth-telling could convey the horrors of trench warfare. Remarque also wanted to satirize the loud nationalist rhetoric of the early-20th century.

With “A Farewell to Arms,” Robert Graves “Good-bye to All That” and Wilfrid Owens’ poetry — as well as other examples that Mr. Tims cites — “All Quiet” is a monument to the “lost generation” of World War I.

Remarque left Berlin for Switzerland in 1932. The Nazis banned and burned his books in 1933 (and beheaded his sister, for alleged anti-militarist statements, in 1943). He became a naturalized American in 1947, then oscillated between New York and Switzerland. Mr. Tims stresses two things that stayed constant despite the wandering. Remarque always kept a trunk packed “just in case.” And of “All Quiet” he said, “I cannot escape that book.”

Both the book and film contain haunting scenes. One depicts the hero (Paul Baumer, played in the film by Lew Ayres) killing a French soldier who randomly hops into his foxhole in no-man’s land. Baumer immediately stabs him in the throat, after which he watches his victim die slowly, gurgling blood (still harping on “all quiet”). Baumer feels guilt, comforts the dying man, and, after his death, finds mementos of his family tucked in his uniform. Almost a hundred years later war books and movies echo the scene, the birth of the cliche. Baumer discovers what early 20th century nationalism censored: The enemy can be “just like us.”

Mr. Tims mentions but underemphasizes one ironic point about “All Quiet.” He says many were moved by its anti-war message; Ayres, he notes, became a conscientious objector during World War II. But there’s the rub. “All Quiet” attests to a common humanity transcending nation, race, and religion. But not all enemy soldiers are “just like us” — not even all veterans of the Western front.

Take Remarque’s comrade, the Bavarian corporal. His rise to power was paralleled by the emergence of a massive international peace movement. Inspired by books such as “All Quiet,” millions of intelligent and well meaning Europeans and Americans said they would never to go to war again. To be sure, Remarque said one must fight Nazism, though, as Mr. Tims notes he shied away from the spotlight. Others just shied away.

Generals, it used to be said, prepare to fight the last war. The peace movement in the 1930s prepared not to fight the last war and, thereby, fostered a worse disaster. “Intellectuals” actually thought history was going to repeat itself exactly; so much for the independent exercise of judgment. Not the composition, but the reception of “All Quiet” raises a terribly irony: Despite the bannings and burnings, did such books hurt Hitler or help him?

Tom O’Brien is author of “The Screening of America: Movies and Values from Rocky to Rain Man” and editor of Arts Education Policy Review.

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