Review: All Quiet on the Western Front
- In the third ever, and first German, adaptation of the classic novel, Edward Berger crafts a haunting tale of the price of war and its unhinged enforcers
When German author Erich Maria Remarque wrote All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929, it was meant to be a tale of the Great War from the perspective of a soldier. Today, it is an anti-war classic of world literature. US versions made in 1930 and 1979 have already graced the screen, but in this first German adaptation, All Quiet on the Western Front [+see also:
interview: Edward Berger
film profile], which had its world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival (as a Special Presentation), director Edward Berger frames the story from a German perspective, edging away from the guilt aspect and more towards the cost for the country.
That cost is the young men’s lives, their fate as cannon fodder and the static warfare on the Western Front. The conflict was more about nationalistic ideals and fighting over territory the size of football fields than it was about glory and heroism. A case in point is the opening of the movie, in which a soldier named Heinrich Gerber dies in the trenches. In an industrial, run-of-the-mill process, his uniform gets cleaned and mended, and ends up in the hands of recruit Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer). “This already belongs to someone,” he points out. “It must have been a bad fit,” the recruiting officer lies.
Ironically, this is the whitest lie told in a whole setup that has Paul and his friends thinking that they represent the “iron German youth” that will be marching towards Paris “in a few weeks”. It is their teacher who has ingrained the idea of achieving glory for the fatherland in their heads. But when Paul, Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer), Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus) and Ludwig Behm (Adrian Grünewald) land in La Malmaison in Northern France, they are immediately hit with the harsh realities of the war.
Berger doesn’t hold back, cramming his frames with piled-up bodies, all covered in dirt, making them unidentifiable. There is blood splattering on the screen as people get hit by grenades, get shot or stab themselves to make it all end. “I imagined this differently,” Ludwig whimpers, shortly before he is taken out himself. Berger utilises long shots, following his protagonist through the trenches. With the camera firmly stuck to the back of Paul’s neck, his take is dirtier than 1917 [+see also:
film profile], for example – it’s far more chaotic as everything around him dissolves into bedlam.
In the trenches, the boys make friends with soldiers Tjaden (Edin Hasanović) and Stanislaus Katcinzsky (Albrecht Schuch), an experienced fighter who becomes a role model for Paul. As they make their way through the deserted, often devastated war zone of France, as soldiers keep dropping like flies around them, Berger’s main interest in the story starts bleeding through. By removing the book’s boot camp and Paul’s short trip back to his hometown, where nobody understands the horrors of war, he focuses less on the false propaganda of the conflict. Instead, he homes in on the cost of the war, the sacrifice of the population for a flawed ideal and a false sense of national pride.
His script adds in the historic truce negotiations between the French and German delegations, a race against the clock to save more people from a gruesome end. Actor-producer Daniel Brühl plays historical politician Matthias Erzberger, who has 72 hours to end the war with a signature. On the other hand, there are men like General Friedrich (Devid Striesow), a champion of the “for emperor, God and fatherland” attitude, who will not rest until victory is claimed, no matter the human sacrifice.
As Paul becomes more disillusioned and mechanical in his following of orders, waiting for his own seemingly inevitable demise on the battlefield, the truce in itself hints at horrors to come. “Treat your enemy fairly or he will hate this peace,” Erzberger pleads with the French. His concern will fall on deaf ears. The rest is history.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a US-German production staged by Netflix, Sliding Down Rainbows Entertainment and Amusement Park Film GmbH.
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