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Newsletter | 'All Quiet On The Western Front' Goes Where Few World War Movies Have Before

Newsletter | 'All Quiet On The Western Front' Goes Where Few World War Movies Have Before
Still from All Quiet On The Western Front. Netflix

Last Updated: 12.42 AM, Mar 10, 2023


This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on November 1, 2022. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


EDWARD BERGER'S German-language adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel goes where very few World War movies have gone before. It’s a strange thing to say, I’m aware, given the prolific and proficient harmony between cinema and war. In an era where film-makers are successfully bending genre and form – the unbroken chaos of 1917, the narrative timelessness of Dunkirk, the visceral doggedness of Fury – can there possibly be another way to express the futility of war?

The bar is already so high, likely because hindsight affords artists a clearer view of history – and, more importantly, its tendency to repeat itself. An immersive set piece can no longer afford to be the unique selling point. The difference, perhaps, is that Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t looking for a new language. In doing so, it finds a more truthful one. It is technically masterful and relentlessly brutal, as expected, but it also reveals a dimension of battle that most anti-war movies don’t have the heart – much less the stomach – to examine

War, Wilderness & The Triumph Of Tragedy

... A MAJORITY OF the 142-minute epic emerges from a rare space of shame and acceptance. The makers are inherently conscious of Germany’s starring role in the grammar of modern warfare. The insight is palpable, not so much from the familiar plot – of a young soldier’s anti-journey from human to statistic in World War I – as from the steady deconstruction of our notions of violence. War here is as soul-crushing as ever, but it is also the sensory bridge that connects man and beast. Over the course of the film, the soldiers are reduced to their most primitive instincts: survival and hunger. They join the Imperial German Army as idealistic recruits out of school, flooded with grand visions of valour and patriotism. But the hellish trenches at the Western Front quickly convert them into glorified animals, for whom killing is merely an act of self-preservation and fear.

Their teeth get progressively yellower and their skin rougher; their soiled uniforms start to resemble sheets of second-hand fur; they crawl on all fours through flesh-strewn and filthy ditches; their screams grow guttural; even the score sounds like a three-note growl. In other words, they become an indistinguishable part of the wilderness: the lucky ones are buried, the others are entrenched. The land these soldiers are instructed to fight for is shot like the nature of wildlife documentaries – with a sense of sweeping spectacle – as if to imply that these are creatures defined not by war but the food chain. Some of the starkest moments of the film don’t feature death but life itself – where ravaged bodies, perennially on the brink of starvation, would rather attack an elusive meal than the lurking enemy.

At one point, the German battalion forces their way across no man’s land into the French trenches. In the midst of all the claustrophobic bloodshed, three Germans suddenly find themselves in a bunker stocked with food and drink. Like sharks distracted by the smells of blood, their primal impulses take over, they forget about the killing, and desperately stuff their faces with the finest of French meat. Only the roar of approaching tanks gets them scurrying out like the rats that precede them. The image might have been funny if not for how sad it really is.

Ditto for the famished Germans stealing geese (prompting a phrase that foreshadows their own fate) from a French farmer – a track that puts into perspective the anonymous ironies of war. At another point, two soldiers fling aside their bowls of soup to plug a spurting wound of a suicidal comrade. Seconds later, the soup is being demolished by a passive onlooker even as their friend bleeds to death. Their regression is so absolute that even the act of flaunting a girl’s undergarments in a dormitory feels surprisingly tender. The bloodied soldiers, for a fleeting minute, morph back into the red-blooded boys they once were, losing themselves in the scent of panties and peace.

The soldiers’ struggles are juxtaposed with closed-door negotiations in a train carriage. Daniel Bruhl plays real-life German politician Matthias Erzberger, an empathetic man tasked with hammering out an armistice with his French counterparts. He doesn’t want more German troops to die, but his urgency is resented by a fascist General who is orchestrating the chaos from the comfort of his office. The General is presumably a sign of things to come, a Hitler-like figure who might have been one of the first to burn Remarque’s novel in Nazi Germany.

The intent behind adding these characters to the source material, though, isn’t just to create a ticking-clock suspense: Erzberger has three days to sign the document and end the war, while the General urges his army to fight till the 11th hour. It’s also to amplify the dehumanisation of the troops who, unbeknownst to them, are having their destiny written by a bunch of well-dressed men who joust with words while casually munching on croissants in warm rooms.

Most of all, what this cross-cutting does is elevate the gravitas of the protagonist’s journey. He is a teenager named Paul (Felix Kammerer), and everything about this narrative is designed to swallow him whole. He soon loses his friends who enrolled with him; he spends a night weeping next to a French soldier he’s killed; his mentor Kat (a phenomenal Albrecht Schuch) fosters that dangerous thing called hope. Watching Paul search for dignity is like watching a human refusing to transform into a werewolf, clutching onto the remnants of his humanity with all he’s got.

But the film neither opens, nor closes with him. It opens with a fox feeding her kits, followed by the death of a boyish soldier named Heinrich at the front. (In a startling montage that evokes the “industry” of war, Heinrich’s recycled uniform ends up on Paul). The film closes with another fresh-faced soldier, who arrives at the front in the dying moments of the war. In a way, this boy, the fox and Heinrich represent different stages of Paul’s 18-month trial in the trenches: human, beast, nametag. Try as he may to defy it, the fur will come, the fangs will grow, and the sun will set.

Yet, the sight of Paul miraculously withstanding the bullets and artillery fire that claim his comrades is seldom thrilling. It’s sad, like a slow-motion tragedy – because it not only reiterates the randomness of war but also paves the path to a future he is not equipped to fathom. He senses that the grass he’s on is perhaps as green as it gets. The closer he gets to the end of the film, the louder the question in his head becomes: Is living through war the only way to survive it? Paul is not looking for a new answer. And in doing so, he finds a more truthful one.

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