A film adaption of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, published under Erich Maria Remarque in 1929, is for sure not a debut in 2023 but in my opinion as relevant and timeless as ever. Edward Berger directs “All Quiet on the Western Front“ in 2022 starring Felix Kammerer as the protagonist Paul Bäumer and features movie stars such as Daniel Brühl whom you may know from Inglorious Bastards or Captain America.
For the people who have not watched the movie yet, there’s a summary: Berger’s adaption starts with a soldier being killed, his uniform being reused and given to Paul Bäumer, who is, despite his parent’s disapproval, joining the first world war alongside three of friends and other school mates. Teachers as well as students voice excitement and the young soldiers are being sent to the west front where they come to have their first contact with war. While the young soldiers befriend the older soldier Kat, one of the friends is being killed during their first night. Roughly a year later, having experienced many battles and losses, the three friends, Kat and another soldier Tjarden are shown. The regisseurs portrays what’s happening in between battle scenes: Paul and Kat stealing a goose and sharing it in their group, Paul reading to Kat, who is illiterate, a letter from his wife or one of the friends spending a night with a French woman returning with her scarf. Few days after those scenes the German front attacks the French where Paul sees two of his friends die and go missing and battles and stabs a French soldier. While the soldier is dying Paul tries to stop the noises he’s making, but then asks for forgiveness on his dying body and promises to write to his wife. When Paul returns the soldiers are celebrating Erzberger, shown in previous scenes negotiating the war‘s end, accepting the Allied terms and the war’s ending on November 11th, 11 o’clock. Paul and Kat find each other and bring wounded Tjarden food, who is the last friend of the group surviving, he gifts Paul the French girl’s scarf and then kills himself with a fork due to his crippling injuries. The next day Paul and Kat steal eggs from the same place they stole the goose from, Kat ends up being shot by the farmers young son and dies form the injuries back in the camp. The movie ends with the General wanting to end the war with a German victory and ordering a last attack on the celebrating French front at 10:45 o’clock. Paul dies few seconds before 11 o’clock being stabbed in the bag. A new German soldier who Paul has saved in the combat ends up picking up Paul’s batch and scarf.
While several movies have been produced, the movie from 2022, bought by Netflix, is the first one interpreted by a German director revealing a German point of view. Nominated yet for 9 Oscars, already won 7 BAFTA’s and much more, Berger’s adaptation got internationally recognized by critics. Voices criticize the symmetric and tidy presentation of war in the arrangement of tanks or that Berger strayed far away from the original book with his script, though generally the movie is declared as well made. In fact, it is one of the most nominated international movies ever.
While shock and horror rule most of the watching experience it also gives a realistic, maybe a little one sided, approach on war and its brutality. Berger presents mud, famine, one on one fights, machinery like tanks or machine guns and and fire throwers; all there to seemingly consequently extinguish every soldier on the battle fields. Though he also doesn’t present heroes or a moral compass. There are no ‘good’ French and no ‘good’ Germans, at least on the battlefield. The viewer isn’t positioned on a moral podest, he is more thoroughly horrified to watch humans slaughter each other for a purpose beyond comprehension.
Instead, the German generals and politicians show the face of raging nationalism “for the Kaiser, god and the fatherland”. Soldiers seem to be the ones suffering, experiencing real life trauma in the cold battlefields while the leading figures sit in the warmth, make decisions deciding over the life of soldiers viewed as mere pawns gladly sacrificed in a game played for the sake of a German sense of exceptionalism. It seems absurd, this simplified portrayal of nationalism, but it paints a caricature of what we see in recent times. Nationalist movements all over the world, wars in Europe and far right demagogy.
In the movie soldiers are awarded with a certain innocence, the modern viewer watches them being ‘tricked’ into nationalism and war, created in a more modern approach. Nationalism isn’t necessarily a disease that can be cured, and soldiers aren’t necessarily brainless creatures. When blaming generals and the leading figures solely it takes the responsibility from the soldiers. How did it get that far politically? They might have been young and naive but Paul’s parents refusing to send their son to war set a perfect example. There were people seeing a problem with war or at least with committing their child to die for the fatherland even back then. The back story of German pride culminating is simply missing by portraying young innocent students as soldiers. Was it the beginning of the 20th century’s fault that empires greed and give themselves the right for more? This is not fault of the movie though more of the initial book.
Regardless of this Remarque himself states in his prequel: “This book is not intended to be an accusation or a confession. It is intended only to attempt to tell of a generation devastated by war—even if it escaped its grenades.”. This takes away the focus from the question of fault and nationalism. A deduction to trauma and man-made disaster basically. Raising awareness for the humanely unimaginable pain and mental scars incaved into the brains of the soldiers. At that time, it was called “war tremors” or “shell shock”. The soldiers may have suffered from nightmares, panic attacks and sweating, came home paralyzed or unable to speak for no physical reasons. Trauma that can only be caused by war, seeing your comrades being stabbed, burn to death or being rolled over by tanks. Having grenades explode close to your face, facing death itself and being forced to carry out inhumane tasks: killing real people, flesh and blood with families and history of their own.
All in all, we should take away from Berger’s interpretation the sheer horror of war. When a 100 years ago fighting techniques are so severely brutal – can you imagine how it might look like today. The visualization of that is something everybody should see, so go watch this movie. It will shock you to the core and you will come to a very simple but existential conclusion: There is no winners in war.
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