(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 German novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Lewis Milestone’s 1930 landmark American film adaptation remain among the most defining anti-war treatments to date. Neither the book or the movie were vague about their ‘war in hell’ message, and both sought to depict it realistically and truthfully.
Now 92 years later we revisit “All Quiet on the Western Front” through the lens of German filmmaker Edward Berger. As far as feature films, this is the first attempt at taking on Remarque’s weighty material since 1930 and (obviously) the first ever German film adaptation. Berger’s epic-scaled polemic brandishes the same scathing anti-war messaging. But he and DP James Friend utilize today’s technology to deliver powerful imagery both on the battlefield and on the faces of the young soldiers sent there.
Much like Remarque’s novel and Milestone’s film, there is nothing patriotic or partisan about Berger’s movie. There are no depictions of glory on the battlefield, and you won’t find a single scene that could be reasonably perceived as propaganda. Rather this is a relentlessly bleak and unflinching account; one that emphasizes the brutality and inhumanity of war, resulting in some of the grittiest and most visceral battle sequences ever put to film. Yet the human cost always remains its focus.
The story begins with a shattering prologue that not only sets the tone, but lays out the film’s message with startling clarity. A young German soldier named Heinrich, not even 20-years-old, stands in a muddy trench with what’s left of his regiment as the call goes out to charge. Terrified, Heinrich musters what courage he can and climbs out of the trench with his fellow soldiers, rushing towards the enemy gunfire. Bullets scream by, artillery rounds gash the earth, gnarled bodies cover the battlefield.
After cutting to the title card, the film comes back to show a lifeless Heinrich laying in a truck full of dead soldiers. We watch as the uniforms are stripped from the corpses and sent off to be washed and mended. They’re then given to the next batch of starry-eyed recruits who proudly celebrate their fresh ‘new’ duds. It’s a heart-wrenching sequence of events filmed and edited with such brutal authenticity. It gives the audience a good sense of what they’re in for.
Among the new recruits is Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) who lies about his age in order to join his military bound childhood chums Albert (Aaron Hilmer), Franz (Moritz Klaus), and Ludwig (Adrian Grunewald). The four friends join a room full of other elated young man who have all been sold the same lie. A German officer rouses them with promises of fabled glory, but it’s nothing more than a devious sales pitch. There’s no glory awaiting them on the frontlines. We understand that. It won’t be long before the boys understand it too.
But all we can do is watch as this company of new troops – giddy and naïve – joyously sing as they march towards hell, oblivious to what truly awaits them on the Western Front. But once they step foot in the muddy and blood-soaked trenches and peer cross the ravaged wasteland, every romanticized notion of war crumbles. Berger wastes no time shattering their illusion, immediately thrusting the four friends (and us) into the savagery of World War I combat. Cutting no corners and sparing no details, Berger and Friend not only visualize the horror, but they make us feel a part of it. One especially intense and magnificently captured battle scene was more terrifying than anything I’ve seen from the horror genre all year.
The bulk of the film is shown through Paul’s eyes and plays like a coming-of-age tragedy. Kammerer’s sublime performance is key, channeling Paul’s descent from wide-eyed and enthusiastic to scared and shell-shocked to cold and deadened. Along the way we’re given some much-needed breathers as Berger pulls Paul away from the frontline, allowing him and his buddies to develop their friendships. He has especially good camaraderie with Kat (an excellent Albrecht Schuch), a seasoned older soldier who he first meets in the trenches.
Berger also spends time highlighting the vivid contrast between those orchestrating the war and those fighting it. French and German decision-makers debate and barter in the comforts of lush country estates and elegant train cars. Meanwhile young men die horrific deaths at a sickening pace. Working towards peace was real-life German official Matthias Erzberger (the always solid Daniel Bruhl) who’s tasked with negotiating a surrender that would appease the prideful Prussian generals and allow Germany to bow out with its dignity. Of course history tells us France’s desire to humiliate its enemy set the table for Adolph Hitler and World War II.
With “All Quiet on the Western Front”, Edward Berger hasn’t just remade an old classic. He’s given us an eye-opening anti-war treatise that speaks to both history and modern day. He’s also made one of best movies of the year. The craftsmanship alone is outstanding. But then you add the deeper themes which culminate in a final shot underscoring the war’s heart-breaking cycle of death. It makes for an experience that can be hard to endure and even harder to shake. But those aren’t bad things. Especially with a movie and a message this potent. “All Quiet on the Western Front” premieres today on Netflix.
Excellent review. I have read the book, not seen the original film. Very interesting to have the first German adaptation. I know this is going to be a difficult watch but I feel I must watch it and so should as many people as possible.
Thanks so much. It is essentially viewing in my opinion. I’ve seen it twice now and was blown away. You’re right, it’s a difficult watch, but worth every second.
We will be doing this tomorrow night when it comes to Netflix UK. Going to need a bottle I think.
Just be sure to let me know what you think. As you can tell, I’m a HUGE fan of this one.
I will definitely be making time for this sometime this weekend!
Great to hear. I’ve watched it twice and can’t get it out of my head. Excited to hear what you think.
I will definitely watch this next month.
Oh you must! It’s essential viewing.
You got a big typo, bud. You said WWII. Otherwise, I enjoyed it as well.
Ugh. That’s definitely a big typo. Thanks for letting me know. Off to fix it now.
The very best war movie ever made!
It’s riveting, horrendous, and mercilessly heartbreaking. Even though I read the book as a teenager, the drama with a most haunting score, left me sad and exhausted
It absolutely has that affect on you. Such a piercing movie. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.
I recently watched two WW1 movies and enjoyed both (one was 1917), so I hoped this might get me the trifecta. Sounds like it won’t disappoint. I was going to watch it when I get time but after reading this I’m setting aside the time today. Thank you for a great review, as always.
Let me know what you think. I think it’s a stunning achievement. Amazing filmmaking and storytelling. It will stick with you.
Brilliant is the first word that comes to mind. As you said it is amazing filmmaking and storytelling. The battle scenes are as gritty and disturbing as I’ve ever seen and the amazing actors almost made me forget I was watching a movie. It was like being in the trenches with them and seeing the terror they experienced first hand. I gave it a rare 10/10 on IMDb.
Great to hear. And obviously I whole-heartedly agree. This movie has really stuck with me. I’ve seen it twice now and it packs such a wallop.
It was decent but 5 stars? Really? Are you seriously rating it as good as das boot, platoon or the original? Dont think so…..
I think it’s an absolute 5 star movie. But I guess it depends on how you view star ratings. There are other movies that I think are 5 star films, yet are much better than AQOTWF. It doesn’t mean I think any less of AQOTWF.
And you definitely mention three gems. All three are sensational.
Great movie, but the original was better 👍
The original was great. Really itching to see it again.
The message was all too clear. People can be made to participate in wars when all they really want are the simple things in life. Such was the strength of the message, I felt drained at the end of the film and glad that it was only a film. In my case, showing the futility and inhumanity of war was something I’ve known for a long time. First class film. I hope lessons can be learned.
Well said. I agree, it’s message was clear yet powerful. It is a draining movie, but understandably so. And like you, it would be nice if lessons could be learned from this.
Thanks for reading.
This film was amazing. There were some scenes from the novel that were left out or changed, which I had hoped would have made it to the film, but regardless, this was a masterpiece of a film. The scene with Paul and the French soldier in the crater actually made me nauseous, which I’ve never experienced from watching a film before. The directing and acting were both incredible.
Thanks for reading. I’m (obviously) with you. It’s amazing filmmaking and storytelling. And yes, that scene in the crater was hard to watch, but incredibly impactful. Now lets see how it stacks up this Awards season.
WW1 played such a dramatic role shaping and setting the foundation for the modern world. It was achieved with the blood of millions. We need quality, realistic, and accurate films to show the sacrifice of these men.
The film is uncompromising, visceral, heart-rending; but most of all it is ESSENTIAL. It’s relevance, like the literary masterpiece upon which it is based, will continue as a cautionary tale of man’s inhumanity to man until mankind evolves to learn of war no more.
Absolutely. Well said.
The sound design and cinematography are great, the writing was garbage. I didn’t weep at Kats death like I did when I read the novel, I didn’t grow close to Tjaden, Muller, Dietering, Paul or Kat. It bore little resemblance to the Remarques wonderful novel. All the parts that help us understand and relate to the characters were either missing or so distorted as to mean nothing. The added subplot of the delegation and Ludendorf was an unnecessary distraction from the story. To its credit though, the cinematic story telling, captures the poet nature of the prose.
Thanks for the comments. I can see where you’re coming from, especially if you wanted more character work. Thankfully I didn’t need it in order to empathize with the young men being duped and shuttled to their deaths. And the movie’s message was well developed for me. I found the entire portrayal of the pointless cyclical nature of death to be very well handled.
There was also a remake in 1979 tarring Richard Thomas and Earnest Borgnine. Surprisingly good.
Right. It was a CBS television film, right? I’ve heard good things about it.
I just finished it. This needed to be on the big screen. It really did. This was one of the most brutal and emotionally devastating war movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. This is absolutely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It’s also one of the most important.
Love hearing that. And I agree on every point!
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