War is hell. It’s a cliché to say the least, but it’s the sentiment that most relates to Netflix’s remake of Im Westen nichts Neues, perhaps best known to Western audiences as All Quiet on the Western Front. The timely remake of the acclaimed anti-war novel, which was the basis for the US Oscar-winning film in 1930, is now a German production from director Edward Berger and follows a soldier’s plight during the final days of the First World War. But is the remake soulless or is it worth your time?
So let me just preface by saying I’ve not seen the 1930 version of the film, but I was aware of it, its message and its impact.
All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), an enthusiastic and patriotic youth who joins the Great War in 1917 in order to fight for the fatherland. Instilled by propaganda, he and his school friends are led to believe that not only is fighting in the war a glorious and heroic act, but the war isn’t such a horrific experience. Little do they know though is that the uniforms they’ve received are second-hand from fallen soldiers on the front and that the war is not only terrible but that the Germans have been taking very heavy losses and a victory seems less and less likely.
After Paul’s first battle, in which the realities of war are quickly realized by him and his friends, the film cuts to November 7th, 1918, mere days before the Armistice will be signed that will end the war. Paul and his friends are weary, and exhausted and no longer see anything glorious about war. Their struggle on the battlefield is juxtaposed with historical figure Matthias Erzberger’s (Daniel Brühl) attempt to end the war diplomatically. While the soldiers are stealing geese from farmers just to survive, Matthias and his delegation are hosted by the French in a luxury train car. While not a soldier on the front line, Matthias is also exhausted and weary of war. He wishes for it to end and will use pen and paper in an attempt to end the suffering, even if that means Germany has to surrender more than a victory. But the war commanders, the colonels and generals, are determined to end the war with a German victory or, at the very least, a German assault so the army can come off as more heroic, rather than the surrendering cowards they could be seen as. Propaganda and vocabulary are powerful tools, almost as powerful as tanks and firearms.
So now that you have an idea of what the movie is about, should you bother with Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front? The answer is an unflinching yes. This film will rank as one of the best films the streamer has made and will certainly rank high on my own list of the best films of 2022. The film is, unfortunately, quite timely due to the conflict going on in Ukraine and a lot of the imagery and themes echoing current events, such as soldiers being sent to the front line with only a few weeks worth of military training under their belts. But the film is set during WW1 and paints a picture of the horrors of that war. There is nothing glorious going on here. In fact, most of the acts of war are depicted as terrifying, absurd, foolish and/or unnecessary. The war scenes are quite violent but it’s never done in a way that feels gratuitous. By the time a battle scene has ended, you feel traumatized and want Matthias to sign the damn papers so the war can come to an end.
There’s a ton of symbolism and metaphors in this movie, with plenty of themes to chew on. The notion of a repeating cycle, from the clothes returning to the front, to the unending violence, drill home a sense of dread and hopelessness. The sewing machines fixing the tattered clothing sound like gunfire, while the contrast between the comfortable French leaders scrutinizing how fresh their croissants are while the soldiers starve on the field paints a narrative of frustration and hopelessness.
Bringing this to life some beautiful…in a horrifying kind of war…cinematography. At times, it can feel like a painting, one that showcases the hellscape that is the French countryside. Muted colours are contrasted with vibrant flames and explosions go off all around our lead. Mud literally cakes Paul, crusting over his face and uniform and gets congealed with blood leaking into the ground. All Quiet on the Western Front is certainly an epic, but one that refuses to let us ever think “oh that’s cool”. This is a dirty, grimy and uncomfortable film to watch. An unorthodox pounding soundtrack accompanies the visuals, which can seem at odds with the period setting, but there’s something about how uncomfortable and different it is that actually kind of works in a weird way.
Paul himself isn’t here to have some great character arc, but more to be an avatar for the perception of the war and how terrible it is. That’s not to say he’s a blank slate though. He goes from eager to jaded over the course of the conflict and we certainly sympathize with him, despite some familiarities in 2022 with this archetype (which may have not been the case when the novel originally came out). It’s also interesting seeing this narrative unfold from the point of view of the Germans foot soldiers, who are just average Joes fighting in a conflict they don’t fully understand; they’re not the Nazis or SS that would dominate the image of Germany come the Second World War. Furthermore, knowing that the end of the war is right around the corner creates a sense of frustration for the viewer. The soldiers don’t know that it’s almost over, but we do and it makes every battle and death feel that much more meaningless. What was gained between November 7th and 11th at the end of the day? Nothing really.
All Quiet on the Western Front is definitely a great film and will no doubt be considered at the Academy Awards for best foreign language. It’s unflinching, brutal and tragic in many ways but is wonderfully shot with plenty of heart and emotion. It’s a timely anti-war film that illustrates the horror of war in a very effective way. It’s a little long, but it never drags and will definitely make you glad you’re not in these trenches.