Sadly, we live in such times that war has never really been irrelevant. Life is scary, from the World Wars to the Cold War to the Gulf Wars to the Middle-East instability to North Korea and now to Putin. So it’s not a surprise that anti-war art has been widespread, with many works reinterpreted again and again.
Such is All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1929 tome about life in the trenches in World War I. Universal Pictures adapted the book in 1930, and CBS made a version in 1979 with Ernest Borgnine and Richard Thomas. Now Netflix has produced a new adaptation directed by German filmmaker Edward Berger.
The film chronicles the life of a group of German soldiers who have just been recruited, from civilian friends to battling in the thick mud of the trenches. It focuses on one individual in particular, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), and how he experiences the gruelling and grinding gears of war from his limited viewpoint. Meanwhile, the German top brass are happy sending more troops to their deaths and will not give an inch to the Allied forces, despite sending German official Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) and a delegation to meet regarding a potential truce.
What immediately stands out in All Quiet on the Western Front is how it presents the banality of war. We are shown some truly gruesome sights, with hundreds upon hundreds of dead soldiers as battlefields become cemeteries – the film does not flinch at all, but we’re conditioned to acclimatise. The fact that we can look at human bodies piled up and feel that it is nothing but a by-product of the conflict illustrates how war at its most basic is so devastating that we can no longer comprehend it. This war, in particular, is all about the futility and madness that comes when you are in a comfy office thousands of miles away from the trenches.
The piece’s humanity comes through exploring the lives of Bäumer and Erzberger and their particular missions. We see it reflected in Paul’s eyes as his ordeal goes on, changing from bright and enthusiastic to tired and shell-shocked. Haunted. That’s what happens when your comrades live and die at a moment’s notice, and you’re there to see it all happen. One day you’re singing with them, eating and drinking; the next, you’re checking their corpse on the battlefield and removing their dog tags.
Erzberger is passionate about the war’s end, but his General disagrees. He sends him away because he thinks it’ll be a distraction, but the official is caught in a time-lock, with the Allies asking for 72 hours to accept their terms. Even negotiation is a minefield.
Berger’s direction is impressive, focusing on the group of soldiers surrounded by chaos to the point where it’s hard to figure out who is fighting against who. It’s an impressive performance by Kammerer, who is making his debut here, and as always, Brühl is fantastic. James Friend’s cinematography is beautiful. The hues of the film are not showy but still help establish both the calm and the storm. At the same time, Volker Bertemann’s droning score is a powerful addition.
One thing about this film is that there are no heroes. Even the keenest of war films are often unable to stop their movies from making war look exciting or patriotic; with many, it’s a feature rather than a bug. But All Quiet on the Western Front transcends that and projects a rather unique and incredibly harrowing look at war—a fantastic film.
All Quiet on the Western Front is now streaming on Netflix