All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★★

"Germany will soon be empty."

Not only an affecting humanist tragedy, but a powerful descent into bowls of the slaughterhouse, strongly communicating the maddening structure and systems of this near-unfathomable nightmare on both micro and macro levels. Edward Berger’s rendition of Erich Maria Remrque’s literary classic guides audiences between coinciding plot threads, one following young Paul (Felix Kammerer) and his quickly shattered perception of military service and warfare while another sees German officials negotiating the armistice that would end the conflict. The themes of the film are no more surprising than what many may expect from the genre by now (namely because of how influential the original text has been throughout media for nearly a century), but the ideas remain a startling reminder of the immeasurable existential cost amassed when empathy and reason are sacrificed for lines on a map obsessed over by a generation who believe that the loss of the natural world and their nation’s youth is worth it for ultimately inconsequential political gains.

Penned by Berger, Ian Stokell, and Lesley Paterson, the screenplay is robust, comprehensive, and shrewdly constructed, qualities mirrored by the impressive technical achievements on display. The striking soundscape and original score (the latter being admittedly unusual at times) set an atmosphere made tactile by the production design and effects work as well as the makeup and wardrobe, each inhabited by a universally phenomenal cast. It’s a vicious marvel, a sentiment indicative of the direction itself. Berger’s filmmaking does occasionally sacrifice the utter horror of the battlefield with brief yet noticeable moments of Hollywood-esque spectacle. But the overall impression of his craft—with the vivid, gut-wrenching brutality of trench combat beside the against-the-clock bureaucratic narrative—proves far more compelling, for me at least, than other recent pieces of mainstream WWI cinema, namely 1917. Elements of that picture certainly feel at hand here (those moments of "Hollywood-esque spectacle" in particular), but Berger appears capable of reining in his presentation when necessary for the sake of the dramatic beats, whereas Mendes just can’t help himself, regardless of the material or tone.

Maybe it’s due to what were (at best) mild expectations, but I was genuinely taken by All Quiet on the Western Front. The film’s dimensions will be familiar to many, but they’re immensely well told and consistently harrowing, underscored by superb turns from the cast and crew. If you needed a better illustration of the infuriating nature of war, especially World War I with its scarred landscapes and disillusioned souls, look no further than the first act when Paul and his Imperial Army comrades are ordered to bail out the flooded trenches amid a torrential downpour. They stand there, helmets in hand, barely able to heave the muddy water beyond the walls as the heavy rainfall continues. It’s useless to these would-be adventurers. Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald) remarks, "Somehow, this isn’t how I imagined it." Little do they know that one of them will be killed by artillery fire later that night. More will follow.

"My son was killed in the war. He doesn’t feel any honor."

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