All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★★½

I'm sorry.

Exceedingly rare is the anti-war film which genuinely feels anti-war. I find myself thinking of 1917, which was an incredible movie and which I loved, but which I don't feel succeeded in being anti-war the way it intended. Visually, the horrors of war are there, but narratively, it still feels too heroic; what the soldiers do is ultimately for the good, and things are made better through their valiant efforts; which is to say, less anti-war, and more "war is a necessary evil". Not fair to single that film out, though; nearly all war films, and especially all American war films, fall into this trap. Many reasons why this occurs.

Obviously Come and See is the gold standard of anti-war films, and none will ever reach that same height, but the latest adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front certainly makes a mighty fine effort.

Beyond how astonishingly (one almost wants to say beautifully, however inappropriate) well-made the whole thing is, one is struck particularly by how absurd and pointless and unheroic the war sequences feel. It's an endless barrage of unfathomable barbarism, obliterating the bodies and lives of those who die, and ravaging the souls of those who don't, and one is overcome with the thought - what are these deaths for?

In something like 1917 (if we must single out an example), one roots for the heroes, and when they kill, while it's obviously portrayed as tragic and awful and boy wouldn't it be nice if they didn't have to, it's ultimately a necessary step to victory, to valor, to success. There is good at the end of that long, dark road. Here - it simply feels stupid, and cruel, and helpless. It goes nowhere. Accomplishes nothing. We don't feel good when the protagonist wins a battle, defeats an enemy soldier. There's no honor in this. It's not a triumph.

It's sometimes said, in contexts like these, that to honor the sacrifices of people who die in war, that we must make their deaths mean something. That we must glean something positive from all that horror. But the great tragedy, the horrifying paradox, is that to truly honor them, we have to acknowledge their deaths meant nothing. We're informed by text at the end that 3 million men died on the Western Front over the course of four years, during which time the front line hardly moved at all.

There is no honor in war. No valor in being a soldier. No heroism in taking a life. To say "war is good" and to say "war is bad, but necessary" is functionally identical, but for an asterisk; noted for the record, very well, but both philosophies lead indistinguishably to war, all the same.

To watch this is to see so much death, and pain, and suffering, and none it amounts to anything. There is no catharsis. There is no light at the end of the tunnel which makes it worth it. There is no better world. One lives or dies, not through strength of character, moral fortitude, love of God or country, physical might, or any other imagined virtue - but through sheer dumb luck. It signifies nothing, reveals nothing, proves nothing, rewards nothing.

War only destroys, and what it fails to destroy, it corrodes irrevocably.

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