War is Hell in this impressively made but strangely unoriginal film, that looks the same and carries the same message as countless others
Director: Edward Berger
Cast: Felix Kammerer (Paul Bäumer), Albrecht Schuch (Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky), Aaron Hilmer (Albert Kropp), Moritz Klaus (Franz Müller), Adrian Grünewald (Ludwig Behm), Edin Hasanovic (Tjaden Stackfleet), Daniel Brühl (Matthias Erzberger), Thibault de Montalambert (General Ferdinand Foch), David Striesow (General Friedrichs)
Perhaps no front-line fighting in history was more hellish than the mud-splattered sludge of death that were the First World War Trenches. Millions of men were fed through an industrial mincer of death, all for remarkably little gain. It was a tragedy born of ambition and pride. It’s cost on the young was beautifully captured by Erich Maria Remarque’s novel (an adaptation of which was one of the first Oscar winners) and it is bought to the screens again in this visceral German adaptation.
Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his friends are naïve young men excited to serve in Spring 1917. Little do they know the blood-soaked, brutal reality of war. It’s soon thrust upon them when their first night in the trenches coincides with a catastrophic artillery attack. Skip forward a year and its November 1918. While Germany’s lead negotiator Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) tries to end the war, Paul and his mentor “Kat” (Albrecht Schuch) just hope to survive. But is there any hope?
All Quiet on the Western Front is raw, bloody and unflinching in its glance at the horrific realities of war. Shot with a cinematic beauty by Edward Berger that turns the mist filled world of no-man’s land into a sort of dreamscape that tips into a nightmare, it leaves no doubt about the brutal cost of war. Bodies are torn apart by explosions, shredded by bullets (even dead ones). Hand-to-hand combat is ruthless and there is not a jot of quarter given on any side. Everything is coated in a sheen of mud and blood, with dying men desperately gulping filthy water or left slumped where they fall.
The after-effects of war are horrifically shown. On their first night one of Paul’s friend is literally shredded by mortar fire. Bodies left on no-man’s land are peppered with bullets. The remains of a soldier is blasted out of his uniform, left hanging several feet up a tree. Paul and Kat discover a missing regiment of young recruits dead in an old factory, having removed their gas masks too soon. Tanks emerge from the mist, setting the ground shaking, rats fleeing before them, spewing death from their machine gun turrets, crushing screaming men under their tracks.
This is actually a fairly loose adaptation of the novel. The original prided itself on its lack of specifics: it’s never quite sure when or where it happens other than in the trenches. The soldiers fight in brutal battles in unnamed locations and simply live a day-to-day existence. This version make everything very specific: November 1918. Sub-plots around the armistice negotiations and the unwillingness of a die-hard Prussian General (a vilely arrogant David Striesow) to accept defeat expand the film beyond the novel’s original scope. However, this expansion never feels fully explored and at times detracts from the film’s richer, more intimate focus on the soldiers.
Berger’s film perfectly captures the sense of these boys being fed into a huge industrial meatgrinder in a cycle of death. The opening sequence follows a young soldier. He trembles with fear before going over the top, aimlessly fires his bullets and then grabs his spade to continue the charge and bludgeon a soldier. Cut to black before we follow the progress of Heinrich’s uniform. It is removed from his dead body, carted back to Germany, washed, repaired and then handed over to Paul as he signs up. Paul questions the name-tag inside: “Must have been too small. Happens all the time” the recruiting officer says, ripping it out. It’s all a production line.
Paul soon learns the truth. Felix Kammerer is excellent as this sensitive, enthusiastic young man (forging his father’s signature so he can join up) who sheds his innocence to become a battle-hardened warrior, succumbing to a mechanical, merciless violence in combat. He kills without hesitation and when guilt arrives – such as his killing of a French soldier in a fox hole – it leaves little long-term impact, so deadened has he become. Equally good is Albrecht Schuch, humane and worldly-wise figure as Kat. The bond – part brotherly, part father-son – is the film’s most affecting personal beat, and its most effecting scene involves Paul reading the illiterate Kat his mail.
There is much to admire here. But yet, while a technical triumph and immersive experience (even its score plays out with the organ-led heaviness of an artillery attack), I was less impressed with it than I expected. Perhaps that’s because it does or says nothing new. The original film was made by many people who were actually in the trenches. This film was made by people who grew up watching movies about wars. It’s frames of reference are subtly different, although its intentions are the same. Maybe that’s why I find it less affecting and less shocking than a film made 100 years ago.
For all its technical skill, the film is a continuation of visual grammar and thematic ideas established in countless films before. The blood-spattered immediacy of Saving Private Ryan. Tracking shots that remind you of 1917 and Paths of Glory. The on-the-streets fury of Black Hawk Down. The rumbling soundtrack of Dunkirk. It tells us War is Hell: but nothing else. Maybe that message is enough and it deserves repeating. But when the film expands the original like this, you want more.
The inclusion of the armistice works against it. The time jump means we lose any sense of the slow disillusionment of these men. Several key moments from the book – most notably Paul’s brief return to a home he can no longer relate to – have been stripped out. Setting the film in the last week of the war leads to a predictable ending that feels like its straining for even more pathos – of course there will be key deaths in the final minutes of the war. A more daring film might have looked more at how a harsh armistice and dark mutterings of betrayal led so many of these young men to hurl Germany back into war only twenty years later.
All Quiet on the Western Front is powerful, but its power is one of reiterating a familiar message. Berger’s film is wonderfully made but only follows confidently in the footprints of other (better) films. It avoids developing its message or context further and it’s expansion of the book’s plotline waters down the personal stories that made it so affecting. It’s grand, cinematic and powerful – but could have been more.