Director: Edward Berger
Writers: Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, Ian Stokell
Cast: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Adrian Grünewald, Edin Hasanovic, Daniel Brühl
Whenever another wartime film is released, we might sometimes wonder how it could possibly bring anything new or stir any new feelings within us. War is hell, there’s no question about that, and representing it onscreen is not only a huge undertaking, but it’s a big responsibility, too. It simply must be done right, with the depth and range of emotions, the trauma, the consequences. This version of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, may not be the first film to cover the story, and it may not be the last, but is it true to not only the novel but the realities of WWI, particularly from the German perspective?
In 1917 Germany, 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Kammerer) enlists into the Imperial German Army along with a group of his school friends. They are riled up with patriotic speeches and promises of going down in history as heroes, making the prospect of going to war exhilarating. However, they all quickly learn that the reality of war could not be further from the propaganda they have been sold. Over the course of the next year or so, Paul’s experiences of war, particularly on the Western Front, are so harrowing that even his friends begin to wonder how they could ever adjust to life during peacetime, and that’s if they even make it out alive. Meanwhile, as we get to November 1918, German officials attempt to reach an armistice with France, with many talks failing and France’s refusal to negotiate on any German terms. With millions dead and thousands more lives immediately on the line, it all comes down to three signatures and an 11am ceasefire.
As war movies go, this one certainly rates highly. It’s very intense, with all the scenes of war being extremely graphic and violent at times, so it’s certainly not one for the faint of heart, however it is a distinctly human story at its very core. It boasts an extremely strong anti-war message, which is perhaps the only kind of message one could really have in a war movie that is written from the German side of WWI. In this sense it stays true to the book, a novel that tells of the author’s own experiences of war and the futility of it. It’s hard to watch the young boys sold a dream of being idolised as heroes of their country at the beginning, when in fact we watch their efforts knowing that they will probably be just a handful among the leagues of lives lost, something that is even more tragic considering how the world now looks back on WWI and considers their country that they fought for to be the true enemy, the ones definitively in the wrong.
Production-wise, it has absolutely earned its BAFTA and Oscar nominations in production design, cinematography and editing, among multiple other categories. They (the filmmakers and the amazing cast) really went to town on the special effects, costuming and make up. The main cast, particularly Kammerer, spend so much time covered, and I mean covered, in dirt (both wet and dry) and blood that it must have really helped them get into character. There is quite a range of cinematography, from the beautiful French landscape as a backdrop to many disturbing close ups of the characters as we see the trauma visited upon them, the anguish, the fear, even the misguided bravery. The music, although nominated for many awards too, was a little off-putting to me, feeling rather out of place at times and making some scenes feel too cinematic and not real enough. The scenes that relied only on diegetic sound were, naturally, the most intense of all. But it all came together to create a superb and realistic production.
Without good performances, this film could have been more of a wash out despite its excellent production value. Fortunately, the talent was high, and the cast were incredibly committed to their performances. Kammerer in particular is a standout as Paul, who is basically our lynchpin throughout the movie, connecting us to the events and other characters. You wouldn’t know this was his screen debut, as his is a solid performance that really shows off his range and abilities while giving us everything we need to understand the point of view of a teenager going to war under what are essentially false pretences. Schuch, Hilmer, Klaus, Grünewald and Hasanovic work so well together as an ensemble but also bring their individual characters to life extremely well, showcasing all kinds of feelings and experiences of younger and older soldiers from all walks of life. Brühl may be the only recognisable actor to western audiences, and while his appearances are fairly limited, the storyline he is a part of (which was apparently created for this film and not a part of the original novel) creates a necessary contrast with that of the physical side of the war, as his character embarks on peace negotiations. His performance is understated but powerful in what it represents, as are many of the performances that pertain to the negotiations.
I personally haven’t seen the Oscar-winning 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front (nor the lesser-known 1979 version, for that matter), which many may consider a travesty, but it’s entirely possible this story could get its second Oscar win, nearly 100 years after the first. It’s a time difference which is astounding to me for a story that clearly continues to resonate decade after decade, and likely century after century. Berger has certainly done not only the story justice but the experiences of war, particularly on what is considered to be the wrong side. There’s no problem adding this to a list of great (albeit western) war movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, as well as more recent movies like Dunkirk and 1917, but its anti-war message from the side of the Central Powers makes it stand out as its own necessary viewing. We can only hope movies like this keep us from repeating history.