The novel All Quiet on the Western Front sees author Erich Maria Remarque write “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war”. The latest adaptation of Remarque’s anti-war epic sees director Edward Berger push this ideal even further, not only is the 2022 adaptation of the novel an update to a timeless classic crafted with a sheer sense of empathy for those who fight, and those who die in war, but an even more scathing indictment of the political machinations that led to the deaths of 16 million people during World War I, and by extension, a furious condemnation of the people in power who continue to send their citizens to fight in futile and imperialistic endeavours that only benefit those who order them.
All Quiet on the Western Front takes full advantage of the modern content capabilities, as well as a modern perspective, to create a timely, harrowing, almost angry depiction of the toll on humanity war takes, the crushing of the human psyche and the sheer number of human lives lost alike. In a way, Berger, and his co-writers Leslie Paterson and Ian Stokel, craft a film that is more focused on that anger than empathy, not to say the film doesn’t have the same sense of empathy as the other adaptations (the Academy award winning film in 1930 and 1979 TV film, both American adaptations) nor its source material, but rather has a laser focus on the contrasting levels of war, from the soldiers in the trenches, to the actions, and inactions, of the higher ups. This contrast becomes a central linchpin of the adaptation as it brings forward much of the events of the novel into a single week as the war ruins Germany, and the patience of some of those in power wreak havoc on the lives of the soldiers.
In 1917, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), along with his school friends, lie about their ages to fight for Germany on the Western Front in WW1. Filled with a sense of patriotism and adventure, the boys are approved for duty and set out, only to quickly discover that war is not the wonderous crusade they believe it to be, that their teacher led them to believe. While a sense of comradery keeps them together, the horrors of war consistently find them stuck in the trenches, both literally and mentally. The film jumps forward 18 months to November 1918, and in its biggest departure from the source material, begins to intercut Paul’s experiences on the front and the real-life political moves towards armistice of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) and the war mongering of the general (Devid Striesow) in charge of Paul’s company.
From the first scene, Berger feels determined in what exactly he wants to explore in his adaptation. The sequence is a battle, a charge across No Man’s Land by German soldiers, focusing on a particular young soldier, it’s harrowing, chaotic, graphic and bloody. After a hard cut to titles, the film shifts into the aftermath of the battle. Hundreds of bodies are stripped of their clothes and buried in identical coffins in mass graves, the clothes transported back to Germany, washed, dried, patched back together, folded and prepped. When Paul is approved for duty, he is handed his uniform, that “mistakenly” has the name tag of the young soldier we follow in the opening scene patched to it, unbeknownst to Paul. The first act is Berger’s mission statement for the rest of the film. At every turn, he is determined to show the way in which those in command disregard human life in war, even when it comes to the clothes on their back, there is no dignity to their death, no love or kindness shown to those who sacrificed their lives for their country’s war mongering. Their value has been spent, their clothes, their weapons, what they saw as their possessions are not really theirs and are better looked after than the men who used them.
If it feels like I’m harping on about the film’s anti-war stance, it’s because the film absolutely pummels its audience about it. This rage is imbued into practically every scene, only ever briefly letting the film breathe to find the specks of light in dark times, comradery and friendship, good food secretly stolen and cooked, memories shared and lives remembered. Even as the film races towards the signing of the armistice, there is a deep anger directed the politics of war, dread of the lives lost in the interim, and the generals and commanders who push the men under their command into battles they know is lost.
This shift in focus from just depicting the horrors of war and a condemnation of those who sold it as an adventure reinforces ideas about war that humanity still has not learnt from. All Quiet on the Western Front maybe set over a century ago, but we’ve seemed not to learn anything from wars past, nor from the art created and stories told about the horrors of it. War rages on across the world, many of them pushed by imperialistic politicians seeking control of regions they feel they are entitled to, sending their citizens off to fight for their own ambitions, with the loss of life stacking up. Berger, Paterson and Stokel’s adaptation sheds a brighter light on that, the contrasting of the brutality and famine of the soldier’s life against the suits and pleasantries of power.
Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front is stunningly focused and confident in its adaptation, haunting and harrowing in every moment. Berger’s direction is stunning, the way in which he crafts the juxtapositions particularly so, and Kammerer performance as Paul grounds the film with so much pathos and humanity. It’s not a film for the faint of heart, none of the adaptations of this material is, but Berger’s film even more so, but it’s an ever-important tale of the futility of war, and the waste of humanity and human lives it is. It’s a powerful adaptation and a worthy modern successor to a seminal depiction of war.
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