At the beginning of his 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque issues the following statement: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Remarque’s book set the standard for war stories with pacifist messages, like Sam Mendes’s recent 1917, and the new adaptation certainly adheres to its central themes.
The novel was previously adapted in 1930 by Lewis Milestone into a film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, which naturally creates high expectations for any following adaptation of the same source material. But the ninety years in between them and the vast difference in film technology helps alleviate comparisons to the previous film. Notably, Edward Berger’s new version is the first German film adaptation, serving as Germany’s entry for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film this season.
To see this World War I tale brought to life from the German perspective, from which it was originally penned, makes it unique even amongst WWI films. Films about the First World War are not prolific in the way that ones about the Second World War are; maybe because trench warfare is harder to depict onscreen or because there is no real ‘villain’ in World War I or perhaps simply because they don’t lend themselves to the patriotic message that many war films put forward. Instead, a film about a doomed generation of young men, about a war fought over foreign policy rather than any sort of moral dilemma, a war that decimated Europe to the point of feeling that no one had won will always be inherently anti-war.
But that’s part of what is so great about Netflix’s new All Quiet on the Western Front. It excels at showing rather than telling why war is so terrible, demonstrating the hunger, the griminess, and the brutality of trench warfare as the men on either side fight to gain mere feet of No Man’s Land. The film opens on a battle scene in which we see a random soldier who is killed; we then follow his uniform which has been stripped from his body, mended, and reused for a new recruit.
The recruit happens to be Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer, who subtly but surely will break your heart), a schoolboy who forges his parents’ signature on his form to be able to enlist alongside his friends, Ludwig (Adrian Grunewald), Tjaden (Edin Hasanovic), and Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer). He has the starry-eyed optimism of a young man fed with propaganda from his schoolmasters about fighting to protect the Kaiser and the Motherland and being in Paris by Christmas. Their boyish excitement is shaken as they’re thrown nearly immediately into a battle right into the thick of the war in the spring of 1917. Paul’s three friends’ reactions to and experiences in the war clearly are meant to demonstrate the way that World War I decimated a generation of young men, but the chemistry between the men allows us to genuinely feel for Paul’s losses. He is taken under the wing of an older, more seasoned soldier Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch) whose eyes demonstrate the weariness of a man who understands the war he’s fighting too well.
The focus of much of the film is on the experience in the trenches and Berger doesn’t hold back in displaying the terrible conditions the soldiers are living in from the pouring rain to the dirt to the way that they coexist alongside their comrades’ corpses. He emphasizes how young men with very little training are thrown into battles, led by men whose power has gone to their heads. The production design by Christian M. Goldbeck brings the war to life is exquisite (and deceptively expensive looking) and even more impressive for the way that it is blown apart by the fighting.
Sven Budelmann’s editing and James Friend’s stunning cinematography highlight the claustrophobia and unpredictability of life in World War I. But the film’s greatest technical element is its foreboding score by Volker Bertelmann. It’s unlike any I’ve ever heard in a film before. Remarkably modern in an otherwise very period accurate film, the score’s synths and snares emulate the sounds of battle itself. It blends with the excellent sound design to create an immersive battle experience.
Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell take liberties with the plot of the book, but perfectly maintain its themes. The largest departure is the addition of a plotline in which German High Command officer Ezberger (Daniel Brühl) works to negotiate a ceasefire first with his German superiors and then with the French. Brühl perfectly shows the frustration of a man who recognizes the unfathomable loss of life being brought about by mere politics and the stubbornness of men who sit in their offices all day. Though he doesn’t have much screentime, his scenes further show the audience how futile the war that they have a front-row seat to really is.
All Quiet on the Western Front is the sort of film that you experience, rather than merely watch. It’s difficult not to get swept into the horrors that it depicts, and though it’s set firmly in the First World War, it’s a reminder of the futility and epic destruction of any kind of war. Berger shows the loss and the inhumane brutality, but also the camaraderie that forms between soldiers and is snatched away all too quickly. Remarque wrote one of the most important texts of anti-war literature and Berger has created a film that perfectly elevates it to modern cinema.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release All Quiet on the Western Front in select theaters on October 14 then globally on the streamer on October 28.
Photo: Reiner Bajo