Written by Fleur O’Reilly
In October, a new Netflix original hit the screens that caught the attention of any history student or self-proclaimed ‘war-nerd’: All Quiet on the Western Front. An adaptation directed by Edward Berger of the 1928 anti-war novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, a German war veteran, the story captures the raw emotions of the first world war. The film painstakingly tells the story of seventeen-year-old Paul Baumer and his journey as a German soldier on the front line and, by doing so, encapsulates the feelings of misery, joy and chaos that can be found in war.
The novel was first adapted for the screen in 1930, when it reached international prestige as one of the first films to depict the brutal horror of the Great War. However, this 2022 adaptation has proven itself equal, or even superior, to its predecessor, leaving its mark as one of the great war films of the generation. The film stands out with its characterisations, backgrounds, and sound effects. This adaptation is the third of its kind but despite being a quintessential German text, it is the first to be directed and produced by Germans, and to cast German actors. Daniel Brühl, known for his role in Inglorious Bastards, stars as the diplomat Matthias Erzberger and serves as a producer. The actors of the main characters, Felix Kammerer (Paul Bäumer) and Albrecht Schuch (Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky), both perform exceptionally, with every emotion etched across their faces. Krammerer’s acting is highlighted throughout the film, his face displaying the perfect emptiness of his character at the end of the film; his performance is bound to bring you to tears. A standout element of the film is that it is entirely in German with English subtitles.
Although the film follows Paul from 1917, it opens with a heart-wrenching scene of nature and the death of an anonymous soldier, displaying both the grand cost of the war and how Paul’s story was not unique. The film deals with themes of honour, pride, and patriotism, all shown to be hollow words on the battlefield. Whilst dramatised for cinema, the novel was based on a real story and the author’s first-hand experiences; unlike other war films, the war does not appear sterile nor staged, showing the brutal reality of the war – rats, blood, and all. The film even makes an exceptional show of the terrifying French Saint-Chamond Assault Tanks – weighing twenty-three tonnes – and the accompanying flame torches. The film allows us glimpses of happy schoolchildren on the edge of glory in war, a war fought by teenagers. The ending is stark, highlighting the desperate nature of the German population deprived of their youth, wealth, and pride. The film makes it easy to draw the connection between the Treaty of Versailles and WWII.
One of the film’s strengths is the amazing cinematography, with long-spanning shots, allowing the viewer to take in Paul’s perspective and the full horrors of war. Berger wisely utilises modern technology to allow for visually stunning yet horrific shots of the war’s surroundings. The use of music to drum home a note of anxiety and impending doom throughout the film drives the film home perfectly. In many regards, the film is comparable with 1917; whilst this adaptation is less new, it tells the story of ordinary stories and the last impact on whole nations.
The film draws on the history and politics of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, excellently paralleling armchair politics with the bloodshed and fear felt by the soldiers. The diplomats are shown in refined luxurious settings, carelessly debating, as hundreds more die each minute they refuse to surrender. Matthias Erzberger, a real German diplomat, is given a key role as he negotiates the end of the war, whilst the generals reveal the petty political victories it is being fought over. The character of Kat reflects characters in contemporary novels such as Mrs Dalloway, revealing how assimilation back into normal life is impossible for these soldiers.
However, the film has come under fire for straying from the original book. The main change is the departure from the past tense first-person narrative. Without going into too much detail to avoid spoiling any key moments of the plot, some characters’ deaths were changed, therefore losing their symbolism. The character of Kantorek, Paul’s nationalist teacher who persuades a generation of children that the war is where they will find glory, holds but a minor role in the film; his crucial patriotic speech in favour of the Fatherland and sending his children off to the war was altered, falling short of the book. The film also cuts Paul’s home leave which provides the turning point in the novel, as he realises he cannot simply return to his previous life as it was before the war. The film has also added in the subplot of Matthias Erzberger and the political fight for armistice which alters the end to reflect the chaotic and futile causes of death in WWI, as well as hinting at the political disarray that would emerge from the armistice. Overall, the film merely adds to the plot what a book cannot and still delivers the poignant and gut-wrenching story.
This is one film that is hard to forget, leaving you to sit in silence as the film ends, pondering the nature of war and its cost. The film perfectly portrays the optimism and nationalistic spirit that carried the countries into WWI and then reveals the horrific reality of war. A particularly poignant message with the current nationalistic spirit sweeping across Europe. All-in-all, All Quiet on the Western Front captures the raw intensity of WWI in a completely new way to previous adaptations. It is almost impossible to describe the emotions the film makes you feel and all I can do is urge everyone to watch the film – lest we forget.
Featured image credit: All Quiet on the Western Front, 2022. Dir. Edward Berger. Copyright of Netflix, used under fair use policy.