All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★★½

I think it’s fair to pose the question whether a new adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, Erich Maria Remarque’s groundbreaking anti-war novel from 1929, which demythologized the notion of young men heroically fighting and dying on the battlefield for their fatherland, was necessary. Remarque’s message, unsurprisingly, was not especially popular in his home country at the time, where an aggressive demagogue named Adolf Hitler, whom you may have heard of, was ranting in jam-packed beer halls about all the reasons the Germans lost the Great War a decade earlier, which included, among others, Jews, socialists, and cowardly traitors who were too scared to defend their country in the trenches until the very last man. So, the task back then fell to Hollywood to adapt Remarque’s book for the big screen and by all accounts they did right by it. I haven’t seen the original that won the Best Picture Oscar at the third ever Academy Awards yet, but it’s next on my list, in part to prepare for a podcast episode I’ll be appearing on later this week. In principle, I have no objections to remakes, especially when they come almost a century after the original. “All Quiet on the Western Front” has inspired filmmakers who shared Remarque’s aims for ages, most recently Sam Mendes for his experimental single-take rescue mission “1917”, my favorite film of 2019. So why return to the well when others have expanded upon Remarque’s original vision and taken it even further in some cases? I’d argue this reinterpretation is significant for two reasons. One, it’s the first German-made adaptation of the book, a much-needed reckoning for a country that is still struggling to come to terms with its legacy from the first half of the 20th century. It’s fitting that they chose it to represent them in the International Feature category at the Oscars next year. The other is the ongoing war in Ukraine, a painful reminder that traditional warfare, contrary to what some scholars predicted, hasn’t gone extinct after all, and that megalomaniacal leadership will always have the most devastating repercussions for the people furthest away from those in charge.

The World War I death toll, approximately nine million soldiers and an additional five million civilians, is staggering, if a mere fraction of the one its second iteration would produce a few decades later. What is particularly harrowing about this conflict, which I find historically more fascinating than its far more ethically black-and-white follow-up, is how drastically it cheapened human life. Young men in their late teens were sent to the trenches en masse, where they often quickly died thanks to machine gun fire, grenades, disease and, perhaps most gruesomely, gas. It’s 1917, three years into the war and Paul Bäumer is so hyped to sign up along with his friends that he has one of them forge his father’s signature on the permission slip. Their principal, doing his best Bruno Ganz as Hitler impression, delivers an impassionate speech about the pride he has in his young disciples for defending the honor of their country with their lives. He speaks of eternal honor and glory for their names and families and promises a hero’s welcome upon their return. To be clear, Germany was not unique in that regard in the early 1900s, even if their nationalistic fervor was particularly heated thanks to the not insignificant inferiority complex their Kaiser was suffering from and who felt relegated to a supporting role on the continent compared to the other colonial powers around him. The first thirty minutes of “All Quiet on the Western Front” eerily evoke a snapshot of a human assembly line. Soldiers die in battle, their uniforms with their nametags still attached are recycled and given to some other eager kids who want to fight. They are put on trucks and driven to the front. They are abused and mistreated by their officers and then shot to shit almost as soon as they arrive. It’s a visceral opening and director Edward Berger, who was responsible for a few episodes of the excellent first season of “The Terror” a few years back, has a keen understanding of evoking inevitable dread when men march towards their demise.

Another fascinating phenomenon is the learned association Hollywood has created in viewers over the decades between German commands and the bad guys. I had to keep reminding myself that the protagonist, Paul, was in fact fighting for Germany and that the loud “Nicht schiessen!” and “Schnell!” exclamations around him where in fact his fellow soldiers, not his enemies. That is actually an interesting novelty for a film about World War I, and trench warfare in particular. There is still a prevalent narrative to this day that the Germans were the unambiguous villains of this war, a version of events that rapidly self-perpetuated after the Treaty of Versailles was signed and the winning powers made sure to place the blame for all the death and destruction on the losers. In truth, while hubris and toxic masculinity played a large role in the German calculus in the summer of 1914 and its aftermath, there was a hunger for war that went way beyond just the people in charge in Berlin. Not few thought it would all be over in a few months, some borders would get redrawn, and everyone would be home in time for Christmas. And the young men in Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Munich among others, who volunteered and eventually got conscripted were just as naïve, foolish, and taken advantage of as everyone else in Europe. Felix Kammerer, a promising newcomer from Austria, has that blank, dead expression in his eyes that comes with years of witnessing carnage unimaginable to humans who never experienced it. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is particularly powerful because it proposes that everyone, even if they are fighting on different sides, are victims of decisions made far above their paygrades. Not unlike by some nutjob in the Kremlin who is still pissed that the Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union fell apart. History always repeats itself. And that is why films like this one will remain relevant until the end of time.

There is a broad spectrum of World War I films, ranging from the romanticized desert epic “Lawrence of Arabia” to Steven Spielberg’s at times condescendingly sanitized “War Horse”, but this one stands out in its brutality from its peers, even as violence and gore have grown more prominent in recent depictions of warfare now that we have passed the centennial of the Armistice on November 11 at 11 am in 1918. I’m not even talking about detached limbs and soldiers bayonetting enemies to death in sheer panic, even though there is plenty of that here as well. The scenes go on just a little longer than they typically would in other films, most prominently the aftermath of Paul repeatedly stabbing a French soldier and having to watch and listen to him slowly choke on mud and his own blood. We don’t get the courtesy of a cut and the guy mercifully dying off-camera. His frantic attempts to fill his broken lungs with oxygen fill the loudspeakers just like they fill Paul’s ears. Trench warfare is an assault on all the senses. The constant screaming amidst the explosions of grenades. The stench of burnt flesh as soldiers get incinerated with flamethrowers. You would think the title of the film was a grotesque misnomer, but it is in fact a mistranslation. The German version “Im Westen nichts Neues” translates to “Nothing new in the West”, as in nothing to report from there. For four years, the battle lines remained more or less constant. Millions were chopped up in the meat grinder, and for what? A few hundred yards, if even that. The film depicts the German and French generals sitting in their comfortable headquarters and train compartments, eating hot, delicious meals, and complaining that the pastries are a day old already. While their men are dying in agony, they get to remain ignorant of the hell upon earth they have unleashed and are now taking their sweet time to negotiate an end to, even as Daniel Bruehl as the uncommonly sensible government representative Matthias Erzberger implores everyone to finally accept the state of affairs and the futility of fighting even a minute longer, let alone years. Like I said earlier, World War II was at its core a fight between good and evil. I genuinely believe it’s that simple. World War I on the other hand was a collective failure of compassion by people who found themselves in charge thanks to bloodlines that dated back centuries. The villain was never the guy shooting at you from the other trench. It was your commander refusing to admit defeat and your king being too proud to concede they fucked up. It’s no wonder so many from the latter group were stripped of their thrones soon after by their subjects who had finally had enough.

On a final note, my friends Josh (@JoshJurnovoy on Letterboxd), Adam (@alichtenstein on Letterboxd) and I had an in-depth discussion about “All Quiet on the Western Front” on Josh’s podcast. Please give it a listen and subscribe to “The Rewind” for a regular dose of insightful discussions with a variety of guests about the latest releases currently playing in theaters or streaming online:

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