Blake VP’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Lewis Milestone version from 1930 is one of the greatest films war films of all time. An incredible adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel, capturing the humanity lost and the depravity of life on the front lines during World War I.
I mention this version because it's hard to separate the films in my mind. I tried to avoid comparing directly but couldn't help but indulge. First off, both versions are great. Edward Berger takes a more visceral approach, while Milestone's is more cerebral. However, the character building and relation to the world at large rings far more true in the 1930s take.
However, Berger's version gets the psychology of war. The protagonist, Paul Baumer (Felix Kammer), is much more of a blank canvas where the audience can cast themselves in his lifeless expression. Baumer expresses love towards his comrades, but the majority of his journey involves an intense urge for hunger, shelter, and survival. There's little time spent contemplating his existence in the army. Rather, Paul is absorbed by the military machine.
As for the war set pieces, the brutality jumps out. Deaths are mostly treated as fodder, with mutilated bodies everywhere. It's a ruthless view of trench warfare in all its mud-soaked misery. There's not a shot in this film that isn't covered in mud. Berger presents a view that's exhausted, yet continuing to fight. It's superhuman and presents survival as luck based rather than skill-based in a war of numbers, bodies, and technology.
The James Friend cinematography was gorgeous, with Berger utilizing natures silence intercut with bombastic war sequences. The gray digitized color grading makes for a rather haunting experience. The Sven Budelman editing featured many rapid cuts, but the pacing overall was excellent. As for the score, there was a pronounced bass sound as the theme that was a bit distracting but added a sense of style.
It's a conventional war film, but one with a more biting appetite for destruction. It's hard to fathom the tragedy the characters have to endure throughout. One of the best modern war films, frankly.