All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★

All Quiet On The Western Front is a solid drama which doesn't quite live up to the standards set by its classic predecessor.

The film takes a German perspective on the last two years of the First World War, beginning in 1917 as an idealistic high school student Paul (Felix Kammerer) enlists to fight on the Western Front. A gas attack and the reality of life in a frontline trench soon shakes him out of his optimism; director Edward Berger’s depiction is as close to hell on earth as it’s possible to imagine.

In parallel, a different story threads depicts a group of German diplomats attempting to bring about a ceasefire, setting up a race against time as to whether peace will be agreed or Paul and his comrades will be killed first. The opening scene chillingly depicts the steps by which soldiers are killed and their clothes recycled for the next wave, turning death into a purely industrial process.

The film walks a fine line between a gritty depiction of war and just wallowing in misery. All of the common onscreen elements of WW1 are present, like mud, rats, flamethrowers and tanks, but have seldom been this horrific. The hand-to-hand combat using bayonets, knives and rocks are particularly disturbing. Elements of the story veer into exploitation, in particular a graphic and unlikely suicide which seems almost like a punchline.

For the history geek, the depiction of the war is a bit too much like the pop culture version; it’s hard to imagine that new recruits in 1917 were quite as naïve as depicted here, having lived through years of the Allied blockade and news from the front. While the combat depictions are striking they also fall into cliches about waves of men attacking with no artillery support or protection, which was too much for even generals of this era.

There are plenty of visual hints as to futility of the situation for the Germans: their paucity of food compared to the French side, the vast armies of monstrous tanks opposing them, and the increasing youth of each successive wave of men.

The proto-fascists on the German side who want to keep the war going and blame the whole mess on the Social Democrats are also a disturbing sign of things to come. Nevertheless, the entire package ends up mired in the muddy cliches of the era it depicts.

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