All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★½

I did quite a bit of homework for this movie. I read Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and watched Lewis Milestone's 1930 adaptation. Sadly, I did not watch Delbert Mann's television movie, but I'll get to that someday soon. All the while, I knew that this version of a century-old story was not without its detractors and criticism. Still, it's always intriguing to see how classic works are reimagined.

And sure enough, Edward Berger's adaptation is far from perfect, both as an adaptation, and as a war film in a long tradition of war films. Yet, it is still a breathtaking piece of filmmaking. Berger is taking a lot from Milestone's depiction of trench warfare, and at times from Sam Mendes's own World War I film 1917. Similar to those, All Quiet on the Western Front is best appreciated as horrifying spectacle. Battle is presented in stark clarity, as the camera dollies or jostles on wide lenses that coalesce all dimensions of bloodshed into one brutal tapestry of ultraviolence. It's exceptional filmmaking that I wish was in service of almost beautifying young men slaughtering one another.

All Quiet on the Western Front sees mixed results in other ways. For one, its structural deviations come with big buy-ins for the audience. The film tries to take from the novel by beginning with a group of soldiers already desensitized to the war, but has moved the timeline up to the last days of the war. Remarque's novel is so internal and unrelenting in its first-person descriptions of the psychological and emotional decay these soldiers have experienced, but Berger doesn't have a much of a compelling substitute for this, give or take a few lines of dialogue that speak the text of the source material aloud, almost verbatim.

Often, the film takes take notable scenes from the book and insert them in different places, for whatever reason, but to none of the same effect.
All of the cumulative feeling, all of the purpose and personality, is lost in favor of superficial iconography. Supplanting the anthropology of its characters is a side plot about the Germans and French negotiating an armistice, turning the stakes into a race against time. It's an interesting idea, though the more the movie goes on, the more troubling its implications in vilifying the French become.

Though the film flirts with the idea of the humiliation of the armistice setting the stage for totalitarian rule in Germany, I don't believe the film is actually making that point. Rather, it illustrates the callousness with which we might treat someone who we can wave away with a label: German, French, soldier, farmer, etc. It's the one successful and powerful idea that the film translates in a way few other war films do, and one that it sees to the very end. The biggest problem with this is that none of the soldiers are dimensional. As game as this ensemble is, and while we are meant to find an emotional through line through Paul (Felix Kammerer) and Kat (Albrecht Schuch), they're barely distinguishable from one another. And because we never see Paul or his classmates change, we don't feel the weight of the war on them until the films final scenes.

Despite being saddled with so many obstacles--obstacles that have nothing to do with the fidelity of its source material, but are, in many ways, further elucidated by it--this take on All Quiet on the Western Front is a titanic achievement. It's so well shot, it sustains so much unease, even in sections that are pretty dull, and is properly haunting. By and large, its soul succumbs to anonymity, and the construction as a vehicle for ideas is shaky at best. But I can't help but be in awe of it. Its technical precision and direction are impeccable. Perhaps it is not one of the greats by a long shot, but its passion and craft are worth the price of admission.

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