All Quiet on the Western Front
Edward Berger’s film is consummately made and commendably acted, and it’s now the beneficiary of copious BAFTA and Oscar nominations, but is that enough? I suppose it’s something that a Netflix film is successful on its own terms, even more so that its awards status has been achieved without the streamer putting any effort in (their eye was on Glass Onion). However… Yes, yes, war is senseless, horrifying and brutal, and… Does that justify another adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel? For all its emphasis on battlefield authenticity, I didn’t come away from All Quiet on the Western Front believing it had much more under the hood than Sam Mendes’ vacuously polished one-shot technical exercise 1917. Unless you equate depth with viscera.
Berger follows four school friends in 1917, eager to enlist and do their bit fighting and killing for the Fatherland. Propaganda being what it is, word on the state of play hasn’t trickled back to their village idyll. Consequently, lead Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer, very good) is innocently oblivious of the implications – and the horrors awaiting him on the Western Front – as he informs the officiating sergeant that his “new” uniform belongs to someone else. Berger wastes no time introducing them to the requisite terror, squalor, filth, damp and cold of the trenches as a prelude to running across No Man’s Land, bodies exploding all around; Paul launches into the first enemy soldier he sees with a cleaver.
Paul makes friends with Kat (Alberect Schuch), older and more experienced. There follows more battlefield mayhem, including a protracted sequence in which Paul repeatedly stabs a French soldier but must then watch him slowly die (reflecting a scene in the novel). The flamethrowers come out (the French), as do the tanks. There are also (relatively) lighter interludes of attempting to steal farm stock in order to survive – not so much on the final occasion, though, in which a French boy becomes an instrument of vengeance – and Paul’s friend Franz (Moritz Klaus) bringing back a scarf from a French girl he woos (it’s unclear whether the girl was overjoyed or decidedly less so to have a German soldier demanding attentions; we never see the “courtship”).
Berger significantly compresses the timeframe, and he omits the novel’s sequences where Paul returns home and must contend with undiscerning townsfolk. I expect these choices were in aid of maintaining claustrophobia, but the result is that All Quiet on the Western Front feels slim in terms of canvas and characterisation while believing it can compensate with relentless war porn. By the time of the final assault – in the novel, Paul is killed on a peaceful day, hence the title – the barrage has simply become wearying. It’s also explicitly tailored for amped-up results; this a last-ditch bid by the German general to achieve a success, pre-armistice, so it’s the irony of a redundant advance that gets Paul killed (he dies a month earlier in the novel). Essentially, Berger has Hollywoodised the material, and possibly the entire approach was directly inspired by the success of 1917.
The writers – Berger, Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson – seem aware context is thin on the ground, being by its nature the soldier’s-eye view. Implicitly, another iteration – following those of 1930 and 1979 – needed more on the whys and wherefores of the war, rather than simply redeploying the carnage. But All Quiet on the Western Front can’t pass muster in that regard; we have Daniel Brühl attempting to haggle for a favourable armistice deal, tracing the mounting casualties as deliberations continue, but all it really achieves is indicating the French were in no mood for leniency toward the instigators. It is exploration of the background to that instigation that would surely have paid dividends. While it does what it does in accomplished fashion, All Quiet on the Western Front leaves one feeling numbed by an overkill of overkill.