It’s overly simplistic to say that Edward Berger’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” reclaims that classic anti-war work for Germany, but it’s not entirely inaccurate.
Berger’s unflinching adaptation comes more than 90 years after Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel shocked a battered and increasingly nationalistic Germany by depicting the brutality of sending young men off to be butchered in World War I foxholes.
The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, dives into those horrors, adds political context that resonates in 2022 and asks viewers to empathize with soldiers who were fighting on the losing (and the “wrong”) side of that war.
Given the power of its images and the terror we see in these young faces on the battlefield, it’s hard to imagine that the film won’t elicit that empathy.
There was nothing militaristic or partisan about Remarque’s novel, which is one of the reasons it was banned and burned by the Nazis when they came to power, thanks in part to stoking racist resentment of what was seen as a humiliating defeat in the First World War. The book was about humanity and inhumanity, and so was the 1930 Hollywood version directed by Lewis Milestone, that depicted the soldiers as Germans but had them speak English; that language choice both made it more palatable to English-speaking audiences and easier to take as the Everyman story that in some ways it was.
Berger’s “All Quiet” is different; it’s in German, with a largely German cast and no way to avoid the realization that the hell in which these young soldiers are being immersed — and the way in which they lost the war — will directly lead to the rise of the Nazis and to World War II.
The Netflix film, which is Germany’s entry in this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar race, follows in a long tradition of the depiction of war that goes back to Milestone’s version, but disappeared for a long while when World War II prompted Hollywood to embrace gung-ho war movies. It strips the glamor and heroism out of the genre to show the brutality of using young men as cannon fodder, while shocking the viewers with its brutality and tiring them with the seeming endlessness of the war.
(Endlessness might be the right word for viewers in 2022, given the conflicts that still wrack the globe more than 100 years after the events in this film.)
“All Quiet on the Western Front” starts with the bucolic landscape of Western Europe in 1917; we know we’re in for carnage, but first we see hills and trees, clouds sitting in a pink-tinged sky, fog slipping through the woods. It’s a technique Berger and his cinematographer James Friend return to again and again, deliberately placing their story in a world that would look like paradise if not for the blood squabbles of humans.
And “All Quiet” doesn’t give us time to bask in that beauty; before long, we’re in a short, brutal battle, and then the ground is littered with dead bodies. In a chilling sequence, soldiers strip the clothes off their dead comrades, leaving a pile of muddy, torn garments alongside the rows of black coffins. The film follows the clothes, not the men, as they’re taken to a factory to be scrubbed, washed, mended and ultimately given to new recruits – one of whom, 17-year-old Paul Bauymer (newcomer Felix Kammerer), gets his new uniform, looks at the name tag and points out, “This already belongs to somebody.”
“Yeah, it was too small for him,” lies the officer who’s inducting Paul. “Happens all the time.”
The sequence, and the rest of the film, is accompanied by a score from composer Volker Bertelmann (who often goes by Hauschka) that can scarely be called music, and is all the better for it: The sound is an aural attack, with sharp, staccato drumbeats punctuating some scenes and a trio of huge, foreboding chords (think of it as an industrial-rock version of the “Dies Irae”) hanging over others.
Paul and his friends are promptly shipped off to the Western Front, where all is decidedly not quiet, or comfortable. Wading through muddy trenches in the pouring rain, waiting to face the moments when they will inevitably be sent to run into the face of gunfire from better-armed opponents, the teenage boys can only mutter “this isn’t what I expected” as they are pulled into a terror that never lets up.
The faces of these boys are scary portraits in blood and mud, with pink cheeks occasionally visible beneath the grime and white eyes so bright they seem to be targets. And over and over, targets are exactly what they are, mowed down by French soldiers with machine guns, with tanks, with bombs and with flame-throwers.
This part of the story was the core of Remarque’s novel and Milestone’s film, but Berger departs from the source material to also spend time with the German high command, who send boys off to die and then plot their next moves in elegant drawing rooms and impeccably appointed train cars. Daniel Bruhl plays a government minister who can see that delaying the peace only means that more soldiers will die before Germany inevitably surrenders, but his arguments don’t persuade the officers who think that France’s non-negotiable conditions for a cease-fire will humiliate Germany (which, of course, they did, enabling the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler).
The film goes back and forth, with the older men bickering and the younger ones dying. The battles become more and more grueling, and the film makes you feel every moment of its two-and-a-half-hour running time; it’s utterly relentless, with occasional breaks to show an officer, watching the distant smoke from the balcony of his mansion where he’s staying or discussing post-war career prospects while listening to opera.
This is a war movie from the perspective of the losers, visually spectacular but by turns infuriating and heartbreaking. “All Quiet” is excessive, but it probably needs to be; the screenplay by Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell takes a dark story and makes it even darker. Like most formidable war movies, it’s hard to watch and hard to shake.