German soldier Paul Baumer sits in a muddy crater in no man’s land, his head in his hands as the battle rages on around him. He has brutally stabbed a French soldier, who lies nearby gasping for breath as blood fills his lungs. Baumer has been slogging it out for 18 months in the Great War, but suddenly feels compassion for the enemy and wants to help the man who is nearly dead. He finds a picture of the French soldier’s wife and daughter in his bloodied coat and breaks down into tears.
But this is not some epiphany that changes him. For though the incident has scarred him, we later see Baumer — with soulless eyes and numbed by the loss of his comrades — charging at the French and hacking at them with all the energy left in his wiry frame. The barbarism of war has stretched him thin, exposing the duality of the man.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Not far away, General Friedrichs, a military commander, gorges on a spread laid out in a pristine, solemn dining room, all the while grumbling that the impending armistice is an act of cowardice. “What is a soldier without war?” he says, ruing his missed opportunity to succeed on the war front. Driven by a bruised ego and patriotism, he sends his battered soldiers back into war.
These contrasting realities of men in trenches and warmongering generals hit home in the latest film adaptation of the 1928 German novel Im Westen Nichts Neues ( All Quiet on the Western Front). As Baumer and his friends traverse the unforgiving battlefields of World War I, we witness their evolution from wide-eyed, enthusiastic recruits to dazed foot soldiers traumatised by the excesses of war. One by one, they lose the will to live as the pain of loss bears down heavier than the wounds of the fight.
Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel already holds a reputation for being one of the most honest and disturbing accounts of what young German soldiers experienced in World War I. So much so that the Third Reich ordered that every copy of the book be burned in Nazi Germany as they felt it denigrated the German war effort. In 1930, an American film adapted from the book would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and remains a classic to this day.
Remaking Remarque’s magnum opus today is no doubt a herculean task, but if anti-war movies serve as artistic efforts to remind us of the horrors of war, the latest iteration of All Quiet on the Western Front has done a splendid job, putting it up there with the likes of Saving Private Ryan and 1917. Director Edward Berger focuses on the brutality that the young soldiers experience on the battlefield and leaves out parts of the book where they are goaded into war by their professor, as well as the depiction of their difficulty to live normal lives on their return home.
Berger uses long sequences and strong visuals, tweaking the original plot to give us a gripping tale. The cinematography is instantly captivating as we are taken along on the journey of Baumer and his friends. Baumer has forged his parents’ signature to enlist in the war in 1917, as he and his friends are excited about the prospects of fighting for the Fatherland. They march out of town merrily, but it is when they reach the trenches that the reality of war hits. For Baumer, Albert Kropp, Franz Muller, and Ludwig Behm, their whole world and their preconceived notions of war are about to turn upside down.
The raw performances are top-notch, particularly that of Baumer, played by Felix Kammerer, and Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky, played by Albrecht Schuch. Kat is an older, friendly soldier who takes the youngsters under his wing. Even a year into their enlistment, the boys are still slightly naive and on edge. The war seems to be ending, but they start to feel disillusioned by it. “We’ll be in Paris in six weeks!” they sang to themselves when they joined. And yet, they make little to no progress on the Western Front in the 18 months they are there.
There are genuine efforts to end the war. Hollywood star Daniel Bruhl plays Matthias Erzberger, a German official who has lost his son in the war and is striving to broker peace with the French. He is aware that every moment they delay the armistice, more boys die. But politics is a dirty game, and men like General Friedrichs do not care about the lives being sacrificed in his pursuit of making a name for himself.
The soldiers take each day as it comes, with little hope of the next. As they scour for food and eye French women passing by, they fantasise about life after the war. One moment Kat talks about having more children, the next he is raring to fight, asking, “How long until we go again?” The duality, again. All the while, they are overwhelmed by tanks and flamethrowers, exhaustion and desperation. The fleshed characters stand out as they are well-written and enacted with all their heart and soul.
There are chilling and horrifying moments in the movie that make you want to look away. And there are moments of diplomatic idiocy that will make you fume. All disturbing in equal measure, yet all of them barely scratch the surface of the inhumanity of the events that transpired over the course of the Great War. Further, as Edward Berger said in an interview, the film cannot come at a better time with everything that’s going on in Europe.
All Quiet on the Western Front stands out not only for capturing the abomination of war but also in its message that young men who are sent out to fight are like lambs to the slaughter — merely pawns in the machinations of bloodthirsty generals. It is not the first and won’t be the last work of art that portrays the depravity of men at war.
All Quiet on the Western Front is currently streaming on Netflix