All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) – Blood, Carnage and Literature

Erich Maria Remarque depicted his personal experiences of the Great War in Im Westen nichts Neues, with its English title being translated into All Quiet on the Western Front. Published in 1929, it instantly became a bestseller and a global phenomenon for its unflinching and realistic depiction of World War I. In 1930, Lewis Milestone directed the very first film adaptation of the book. Despite being performed in the English language and produced at a time when Hollywood films weren’t necessarily known for their realism, Milestone defied convention and created what is arguably the archetypical war film, with many of the conventions of the genre firmly established in that film as they were in the book. It would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it remains a strong film nearly a century later. Decades later, in 1979, a well-regarded television version was produced for CBS featuring the notable talents of Richard Thomas, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Pleasance among many others. And now in 2022, Remarque’s book has finally been adapted in its proper German language for the first time, courtesy of Netflix, and has captured attention of audiences and critics once again, with the Academy awarding it four Oscars, including best International Film.

Directed by Edward Berger, this new version of All Quiet follows roughly the same story as the book and its previous incarnations. It is the story of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a young and idealistic German student who at the beginning of the film eagerly joins the German Army as World War I rages in Europe. He joins alongside his many classmates with dreams of glory but once at the front they quickly realize they have been fed lies. They thenceforth struggle to survive but are aided by some of the older and more experienced soldiers such as Katczinsky, also known as “Kat” (Albrecht Schuch). However one would be mistaken if they believed this was simply a straight adaptation of the book. The script, co-written by Berger alongside Lesley Paterson & Ian Stokell, introduces an entirely new subplot within the film depicting the signing of the armistice that ended the war in 1918. These scenes are dominated mainly by Daniel Brühl, who in addition to acting as co-producer on the film, portrays the historical figure of Matthias Erzberger. These seemingly conscious deviations from the book and earlier adaptations are both a strength and a weakness to this film.

It’s hard to make a war film in a post-Saving Private Ryan world. It seems as if every war film since has tried to replicate the level of visceral intensity that Steven Spielberg achieved, but often at the cost of humane drama and characters. There have been some genuine and fresh approaches to the genre since of course. Quentin Tarantino turned his attention to spaghetti westerns and 70s B-movie sensationalism when he made Inglourious Basterds. Christopher Nolan solved the character problem by ridding himself of characters entirely in Dunkirk in favor of the pure visceral experience, and it worked in favor of that film. And Sam Mendes played with the concept of real time, camera and landscapes in an innovative way in his own WWI drama 1917. What Edward Berger tries to do with All Quiet on the Western Front is seemingly to bridge between Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk, at least when it comes to the matters of battle scenes. And for me the battle scenes was where the film excelled, for they are all first rate. Even when we think we have seen everything a filmmaker can do with trench warfare. The scene involving the tanks in particular was surprisingly well done and truly brought forth the terror most of the soldiers must have felt when faced with this honking piece of industrial warfare for the first time.

Being an adaptation of a book, one cannot expect the filmmakers to simply “do the book” as it is both impossible and futile. And in some cases alterations from the book can work in its favor. I’m not giving anything away when I say that several of the main characters die throughout this film, but what surprised me was when they killed off characters who didn’t die in the book. It created more tension for me as someone who had read the book many years ago because I would be unable to guess who was going to live and who was going to be killed. Where I think the film falters in its deviation from the book is the subplot involving the signing of the Armistice, which felt tacked on and unnecessary. It also led to the inclusion of a German general character, once again not from the book, who feels betrayed by his own politicians and yearns for glorious battle.

I bring this up because it severely alters the climax and nature of the story from the book, and in my mind for the worse. These divergences not only distracted from the day-to-day soldier’s life that Remarque depicted in his writings, but it also significantly alters the climax into what I experienced as more typical war movie climax of the “big battle” at the end which to me undermines the whole point of the book, and indeed the ending of the book. I can understand why Berger and Brühl fought for this inclusion into the story but I thought it belonged to an entirely different movie, not Remarque’s tale. I understand one must make changes to a story as familiar as this one, but there is a limit to it I think.

All that said, I still recommend the film. Despite its shortcomings, I think the battle scenes and most of the scenes involving Paul and his friends are strong enough on their own to make it worthwhile. And with plenty of critics and audience members having raved about it, I suppose I may be the odd one out in this case. Though it’s heart was in the right place, it was not enough to win me over entirely, but it may strike a chord with viewers all the same, and stands as another reminder of the power of Remarque’s legendary tale.


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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