To be able to tell All Quiet on the Western Front from our perspective?” said director Edward Berger in a recent interview. “There was no going back for me.”
Making the first German adaptation of the canonical German novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Enrich Maria Remarque is an ambitious gamble that pays huge dividends for Berger. First published in 1928, All Quiet on the Western Front quickly became both a literary and cinematic anti-war classic. Hollywood came calling with Lewis Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of the novel. Bold, brutal, and told with truly epic scope for the time, the film endures as one of the best of the era. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, but the book had already been banned and burned in its homeland when the envelopes were opened.
92 years later, All Quiet on the Western Front returns to the battlefields in its native tongue. The film is, boldly, Germany’s submission in the Oscar race for Best International Feature. One suspects it’s an early frontrunner. It’s better than Milestone’s version of the film, which still holds up. This story doesn’t get old. In fact, it stings with its brutal immediacy as the world fails to learn from the horrors of history. As Russia wages a futile attack on Ukraine in 2022, the tragic tale of Germany doggedly sticking to its guns in the face of obvious failure is strikingly disheartening. Moreover, film production has simply evolved considerably since the Milestone version. Berger’s take affords All Quiet on the Western Front the scope, scale, and brutality unlike anything yet.
A Single Coat
The film again finds a stirring image for the magnitude of loss in a soldier’s uniform. All Quiet on the Western Front opens as Heinrich Gerber (Jakob Schmidt) runs into the fire with his battalion. Death seems an inevitability as his brothers in arms drop around him. Many men don’t even make it out of the trenches. However, as Berger puts audiences alongside Gerber as he runs for his life—many action sequences of Western Front get the adrenaline pumping à la 1917—one sees the battlefield from this young soldier’s point of view. It’s bleak, barren, and ugly. And we don’t know the reason why he runs towards certain death beyond obeying orders.
Back in Germany, the busy hands of the war machine confirms the forecast: death for all seasons. An assembly line of seamstresses busily launders the blood from the uniforms of fallen soldiers. They quickly stitch up the bullet holes—gruesome blemishes on garments that might otherwise pass as new. Gerber’s uniform lands in the hands of fresh-faced 17-year-old soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer). Paul is the eyes through which the film sees Germany’s last stand in a battle that’s all but lost. He’s eager and idealistic. Spouting the messages of the propaganda machine, he honestly believes his actions the war can be war. He’s also one of few characters in the film who lives long enough for audiences to remember his name.
As the uniform, etched with Gerber’s name in the hem, transfers the fate of one solider to another, Berger’s film evokes not Remarque’s novel, but another great anti-war film: Schindler’s List. The image of the jacket evokes the sight of Spielberg’s young girl in red. Berger instructs viewers to keep their eyes on this jacket—no easy task—as it navigates the horrors of war.
Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.
Paul learns quickly that the war is not how he imagined it. An early reconnaissance mission puts him and his comrades in search of sixty missing men. They find the young soldiers, all dead from a mustard gas attack. The film then puts audiences deep within the trenches to capture the boredom and brutality of the battle. There are stretches of the film that simply see the soldiers freezing to death while biding their time. Berger peppers the film with simple survival techniques, like ramming one’s frozen hands down one’s knickers or shuffling ten paces to the left after firing a shot. Paul, unfortunately, learns this trick after his muzzle fire betrays him and leaves him with a hole in his helmet. He’s one of the lucky ones.
Bodies pile up, while other soldiers resemble the walking dead. Berger intuitively taps into the novel’s sense of lost innocence and honour lost as Paul’s quest becomes not one to defend the homeland, but a mere exercise in survival. The film litters the battlefield with corpses and bloodshed. All Quiet on the Western Front is easily the most brutal war film since Saving Private Ryan. It is also, arguably, one of the best. The film is completely gripping as Paul fights for not simply his life, but for a sense of humanity. The futility of the battle isn’t lost on him.
Ditto lefty politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), who wants the war machine to stop. The film weaves between brawn and brains as it cuts from the Western Front to the boardrooms of Berlin. As Erzberger seeks an armistice, the film finds an unlikely hero in his fight for peace.
Show Me a Hero
Back in the trenches, Kammerer admirably carriers the complicated gravitas of Western Front. It’s an intense and inquisitive performance. Much like George Mackay’s powerful turn in 1917, Kammerer’s Paul is a physically demanding role. The score by Volker Bertlemann (Lion) similarly propels him. Beyond tasking the actor with running the gauntlet amid explosions, gunfire, and a melee of men and horses, the film requires Kammerer’s reaction shots to carry the emotional turns of the story.
Staying true to the novel, Berger finds a compelling protagonist who eludes the designation of a hero. The film asks why heroism is the default descriptor for war amid such a pointless waste of human life. Berger nevertheless affords acts of heroism to his story. Paul and others indeed fight bravely, yet the heroic moments are ones in which soldiers afford their peers simple gestures. These acts might be sharing a drink, or simply looking for a fallen friend to collect his tags and send them home. However, this film, unlike most war films, complicates the matter by reminding viewers for whom the soldiers fight.
While Berger admirably nails all the details in recreating the inhumanity of trench warfare—the production design, costumes, and make-up are marvels of gritty authenticity, while the appropriately cold cinematography captures a barren wasteland—the moral complexity of this tale makes it especially memorable. Hollywood movies often tell war stories from the heroes’ perspective. German’s legacy with the Great War is far more complicated. Capturing the scale and spoils of the war, the film acknowledges this inheritance sombrely and matter-of-factly, eulogizing all the lost lives. It’s only fitting that a German film should be the definitive adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.