All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) ★★★1/2
Availability: Showing in a few theaters nationally; streaming only on Netflix; see JustWatch here for updated streaming availability.
The War to End All Wars
In the midst of an ugly conflict in Ukraine comes a German film, based on the famous, almost 100-year-old eponymous novel, about trench warfare in Europe. Not planned to coincide, but eerily relevant. At a time when most of the West supports Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression, “All Quiet on the Western Front” burst onto the Oscar scene (earning 9 nominations, for Best Motion Picture as well as Best International Feature Film) and to acclaim as an anti-war treatise.
Trench warfare in France, 1917 and 1918, as seen in the film. The scenography that comes the closest is “War Horse” (2017), where the horror is made more palatable by being displaced onto the horse.
There are no war heroes, no courageous politicians , no planting of a flag.
Within the war film canon, this latest version of Erich Maria Remarque’s fictionalized story of his own experience is, like the book, almost solely about the grim, unrelenting, horrific experiences of the German foot soldier on the French front in World War I, known until World War II as the Great War or the War to End All Wars. Geopolitics hardly matter, except as shown in brief, cross-cut scenes of removed generals and politicians who throw men to slaughter for their own ego satisfaction. There are no war heroes here (“Sergeant York” 1941), no courageous politicians (“The Darkest Hour” 2017, Zelensky), no planting of the flag (“Sands of Iwo Jima” 1949), no villains (“Bataan” 1943), no home front (“Since You Went Away” 1944), no hills to conquer (“Hacksaw Ridge” 2016), no life-saving mission (“Saving Private Ryan” 1998), no logistics of war (“Dunkirk” 2019), no focus on war’s absurdities (“Apocalypse Now” 1979). What remains is the human cog in the killing machine.
“All Quiet” shares with Peter Jackson’s innovative 2018 documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” the initial enthusiasm of young men, overwhelmed by nationalist fervor, enlisting for the great cause. Jackson’s footage was of British lads, Remarque’s portrait is of Germans. The themes are the same: boys lying about their age to enlist, thrilled at donning the uniform, reveling in camaraderie, sure they will come home as heroes—only to quickly confront killing and dying and their own vulnerability. The loss of innocence is swift.
Boys lie about their age to enlist,
thrilled at donning the uniform,
reveling in camaraderie. Paul, Felix Kammerer, right, as a young cadet
excited to be going to war.
Director Edward Berger’s adapted screenplay eschews the traditional Hollywood arc of challenge and success (seen recently in Sam Mendes’s “1917” that purports to give an ordinary soldier’s eye view) for the rhythms of war: combat with its mutilation, death and dying; moments of intimacy with fellow soldiers (“I’d rather be here”); more combat and death; relishing a meal of stolen goose; more combat and death. Moments of relief punctuate the sordid reality: they are being sent to their deaths while never gaining more than a few meters of ground. There’s more than a little of the horror film here. Like Jason in “Friday the 13th,” the possibility of dying—and its counterpart, killing—always returns.
Left, and above, Felix Kammerer
as foot soldier Paul, whose
face, or faces, one cannot forget.
Berger envelops the viewer in trench warfare (the same trench throughout the long months of 1917 and 1918) by focusing his lens on several youth who enlisted together and some older soldiers in their unit. One is an illiterate shoemaker with dreams of returning to his wife and having more children (he has one child who died of “the pox”), another carries a talisman of a white scarf from a night with French farm girls. The protagonist is Paul, a callow, good-humored, well-meaning youth who might go to university. Paul’s highs (his enthusiasm for joining up, eating the goose, caring for his buddies) and lows (brutally stabbing a French soldier, then trying to save the man’s life while both are trapped in a muddy shell hole) are indelibly presented by Austrian stage actor Felix Kammerer, whose face, or faces, one cannot forget (despite a fine performance ranging from ebullience to devastation, he’s received little awards attention). One expects, and hopes, that Paul’s excruciating experiences will change him, even transform him, but war has done what it must: it’s made him an insensate fighting animal.
The visual contribution of this newest version of Remarque (the 1930 version, coming to the screen in an era consumed by the quest for “peace,” won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture) is that the brutality of war is displayed in all its bloody gore: bleeding, mutilated, gurgling men; bodies, piles of bodies; rivers of blood as the dead’s clothes are washed for re-use; faces caked with dirt and blood and mud (the scenography that comes the closest is “War Horse” (2017), where the horror is made more palatable by being displaced onto the horse). For full impact, the film should be seen in theaters. Because the producer is Netflix, the lavish production (rumored to be the most expensive in the company’s history), is destined to be living-room fare.
Whether as a novel or as this film, “All Quiet on the Western Front” might better be understood as propaganda, for an anti-war cause.
It will be tempting to understand the film as telling the ultimate truth: “war is hell.” But war is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. It may be hell for Paul, but for Ernest Hemingway—and presumably, for other young men who were not in the trenches—that same war was experienced as invigorating and clarifying. Whether as a novel or as this film, “All Quiet on the Western Front” might better be understood as propaganda, for an anti-war cause. The Nazis understood the book in those terms; they banned and burned it. The Office of War Information, the U.S. agency of censorship during World War II, would never have allowed the film to be made, let alone shown—not because it told the “truth” about war, but because it was an anti-war polemic, a tale of one truth among many.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is an old and, in its way, old-fashioned story. Today, most warfare is waged not with knives and bayonets but with sophisticated weaponry—drones, planes, missiles, IEDs. Even so, the film has contemporary relevance, especially as the conflict in Ukraine appears to be headed for Great War stasis, a trench war of attrition. In 2023 too, generals dining on fine food at the ends of long tables, or politicians in a far-removed land, will send children to their deaths. The average age of a combat soldier in Vietnam was 22.
Director: Edward Berger
Starring: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Edin Hasanovic
Country: Germany, United States, United Kingdom
Language: German and French; available subtitled in English and dubbed in English
Oscar Nominations: 9: Best Motion Picture, Best International Feature Film (Germany), Best Achievement in Makeup and Hair Styling, Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score), Best Sound, Best Achievement in Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Achievement in Production Design
Other Awards: 18 wins and 74 other nominations