By Marc S. Sanders
Edward Berger’s Oscar nominated interpretation of All Quiet On The Western Front is a massive success in filmmaking, storytelling, character and construction. This 2022 adaptation of the well-known novel by Erich Maria Remarque does not only depict the ugly horrors of a mud soaked, gory and bloody conflict within deep dug out trenches, and on endless plains of wasteland battlegrounds. It also provides perspective for the difficult peace talks occurring near the tail end of the third year (1917) of the First World War. Another aspect covers the celebrated commander who leads a charge from the comfort of a German high castle while feasting on grand meals, far away from the front, steadfast to never surrender, and emerge victorious no matter the cost.
The main character is a youth named Paul (Felix Kammerer) who is eager to join the German brigade against the French armies. He happily takes up with school chums to forge their parents’ signatures and enlist amid the reverie that greets them with cheer from his school superiors raging with heroic propaganda. Shortly after, he is gifted an honorary soldier’s uniform, pressed, and laundered, that once belonged to another soldier who violently perished in battle. Paul and his friends are rushed to front line of the fighting, into a muddy German trench and pushed on to slaughter in the name of his country. It does not take long for Paul to realize any derring-do he envisioned is nonexistent as men die by gunfire, grenades, flame thrower attacks and tank armaments. If the men around him aren’t dead, they are at least dismembered with shredded, bloody stumps in place of limbs.
Elsewhere, the German diplomats travel in class aboard a luxury passenger train to meet up with French leaders in an effort to come to a cease fire. Germany is greatly failing this conflict with loss of life, territory, supplies and money. It’s a reluctant meeting to partake as the French are uncompromising with their terms. Either Germany agrees to the demands of the French, or the war continues. The Germans only has 72 hours to concur. Coinciding with all of this is General Friedrichs of Germany (Devid Striesow) who lays out commands while dining and taking his butler service for granted. He also sheds no tears for the soldiers beneath him as they are giving up their lives to fight a war that can’t be won. Assuming a complete understanding of what constitutes a soldier based upon the generations who fought before him, he asks “What is a soldier without war?”; a dangerous philosophy for all others but him.
Of the modern war pictures to arrive in the late twentieth century and on (The Thin Red Line, Born On The Fourth Of July, Letters From Iwo Jima, 1917), the battle footage consistently offered a convincing and horrifying reality of the bloodshed that occurred during these historical conflicts. These are not the John Wayne pictures of yesteryear. Watching Berger’s film, which he co-wrote, I didn’t necessarily see anything that I hadn’t seen before, like sudden gun shots to the head, rapid gunfire, caked on mud, faces being blown off, or bodies being blasted to bits. Tanks are destroyed with grenades tossed into the cockpits and within their tracks. At times Paul even loses his sensory hearing amid the deafening battles, just as Tom Hanks’ character did in Saving Private Ryan. Much of the material is identical to these other esteemed films. What grabbed me though was how three storylines in this new film compound on each other.
Peace talks arrive. However, any kind of reconciliation will not begin until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. That’s quite convenient for country leaders to agree on while sitting around a dining table within a luxury train compartment, but the bloodshed continues until that scheduled moment arrives. Talk of peace also does not force battalion leaders to stand down. If Germany is to lose the conflict to France, they will go down with one final victorious conquest in battle. War does not play like a sporting contest where the officials ensure that everyone stops what they are doing as a clock runs out. War unleashes a rampage in the pawns used to obtain territory and conquest. The fighting gets personal. One on one fights resort to drowning your enemy in a brutal mud puddle or clubbing an attacker with a rock to the head. A very personal scene occurs when Paul resorts to stabbing a French soldier multiple times in the heart. The poor man is giving his last breaths and Paul needs to shut him up to avoid drawing any attention to their location, so he starts to shove mounds of dirt in the man’s mouth. Soon after, Paul is apologizing to this man and begging his victim to hold on for dear life. It’s a powerful scene never intended to make any sense, because ultimately in the field of battle, nothing makes sense. Only frenetic chaos exists.
I have every appreciation for men and women who serve their country with the courageous will to protect against enemy threats and uphold domestic freedom and democracy. Yet, endless war for achievement of gain does not necessarily translate to protection or honor like General Friedrichs preaches to his battalions from his balcony. It’s easy for him to heed this policy, dressed in an unstained, decorated uniform with the pride of his fighting generations before him who were all hailed as heroes. For an insignificant solider like Paul, though, when does he earn the recognition he has sacrificed? When will his dead comrades gain any appreciation? Paul’s greatest accomplishment is that he does not get shot and blown away as he runs head on towards a more powerful enemy. Is that a celebration of the Germany he thought he stood for, though? Paul encounters an awakening he never expected while fighting at the front line.
Edward Berger controls a very detailed and forceful piece. Every ditch or shredded body of a solider tells the real story of this bloody war that cost nearly 17 million lives. The art direction of the trenches for both the German side and the French, located at the front lines, are endless mazes dug deeper than the heights of the even the tallest soldiers. Vokel Bertelmann provides the blaring, monstrously echoing soundtrack to the film and uses his horn like chords as an omnipotence to this hellish environment. His orchestra is so pertinent to the setting of the film. The craft of makeup and costumes for all the extras and main players in the battle scenes is grotesque with extra thick caked on mud and different shades of blood reds, browns, and blacks. The sounds of the tanks and the rattling explosions will make you wince with fear and shock for these boys running to their ill-fated doom with just a thin rifle to fight with.
All Quiet On The Western Front has all of the common tropes of other more modern war pictures. It works on its own though because the battle scenes are spliced in with the puppet masters, comfortably located elsewhere, who can control the outcomes of these bloody conflicts. The delay of peace and agreement prolongs the horrifying carnage. The fate of Paul, his friends, and all the other soldiers rests on what does or does not come to settlement from the people whose commands they serve.
This is a fantastic movie. One of the best films of 2022.