Photo credits: Netflix
In the book, All Quiet on the Western Front, author Erich Maria Remarque writes: “…We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life…We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in war.”
A war film is a hard movie to make. Not hard in the sense of producing the film, but hard in the sense of not glorifying war either intentionally or unintentionally. In a 1973 interview with the Chicago Tribune, filmmaker François Truffaut said: “There is no such thing as an anti-war film…Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” Having seen Netflix’s 2022 adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” I argue that Truffaut was not entirely correct.
Directed by Edward Berger and starring Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch and Daniel Brühl, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is an adaptation of the famous anti-war novel of the same name. The plot follows Paul Bäumer, a German school-boy who is enlisted in the army along with his friends. Soon after arriving on the Western Front of WWI, they find their ideas about war shattered. They are then aided in their survival by Kat, a sergeant who helps them try to survive the nihilistic nightmare around them. Meanwhile, as Paul and Kat see their friends chewed up by the war, members of the German and French government desperately attempt to work out an armistice.
One of the biggest arguments surrounding this movie is how it stacks up when compared to the first film adaptation of Remarque’s novel, made in 1930. While that version was important for early sound filmmaking, the 2022 version is the superior adaptation from storytelling, acting and technical perspectives.
Edward Berger’s decision to cut out sections of the original story was a bold choice, but it ends up focusing the film by taking place solely at the Western Front, even during the scenes not directly on the frontlines of the fighting. Keeping the war in the foreground helps introduce a sense of existential dread as the audience is careful of the constant threat of death. Using this focus, the film’s narrative helps reinforce a key part of Remarque’s story, which is that Paul, Kat and the other characters are not the same as they once were, having been mentally scarred by the industrialized massacre around them, waiting for the war to claim them as well. Even the negotiators of the armistice can feel the brutality of war around them as they try to put an end to the slaughter. All of this creates a narrative that is fresh, but still as stirring as the source material of Remarque’s novel.
Acting in a war movie is another essential factor because it needs to convey savagery, but also despair in the wake of it, and Felix Kammerer and Albrecht Schuch give fantastic performances that each feel unique to their character. Schuch portrays a man who has grown numb to the carnage around him, but also displays a resolve to live so he can return home to his wife and his business. Kammerer’s performance, however, is provocative and heart-wrenching in its rawness. He portrays Paul as he goes from a naive young man that is broken by war, struggling to survive until the war’s end, and after the war begins to reach its gruesome conclusion, even survival may be too much to hope for. While Brühl’s performance is good, there’s not enough screen time for him to turn in a well-rounded job, but the film hardly suffers from this as Schuch and Kammerer carry this film without ever slipping.
At the 95th Academy Awards, “All Quiet on the Western Front” won several Oscars for filmmaking such as Best International Feature Film, Cinematography, Production Design and Score, and those are justly deserved. The camerawork on display by cinematographer James Friend is gripping, especially during the sequence involving Paul’s company getting counter-attacked by the French tanks. The way the camera frames the tanks as they come creeping out of the smoke is profoundly intimidating, as the language of cinematography signals an even worse slaughter is about to unfold. And unfold it does, as Paul’s fellow comrades are cut to bloody ribbons by the tanks guns or set ablaze by the French flame-troopers supporting the tanks, rendering their efforts to dislodge their French adversaries completely moot.
The cinematography works in-tandem with Volker Bertelmann’s fantastic score of the film, especially in the last scene in the film where the arrogant and prideful commander of Paul’s division, General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) orders everyone to charge at the French lines before the armistice goes into effect. The film’s signature three-note chord made using an old harmonium, echoes like a herald expressing the impending massacre about to occur. From there, the score becomes intensely brooding and disturbing as the battle descends into chaos as Paul struggles to survive for the last few minutes before the armistice takes effect. Along with the cinematography and the score, the production design is incredible as the filmmakers steadfastly devoted themselves to making the film feel as authentic as possible. From the uniforms of Paul and Kat to the sets used on screen, to the lighting and beyond, Production Designer Christian M. Goldbeck seamlessly brings to life the horrors of the Western Front.
Netflix’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” isn’t a flawless film, but it does flawlessly re-create Remarque’s novel while also destroying the notion of war as either honorable or an adventure. Other war films do try to depict war as generally awful, but often unintentionally make it feel invigorating. What this film understands and expresses, is a bitter truth: that there is no meaningful sacrifice in war and no glorious death either. Considering the state of the world at the time of this writing, perhaps we all need this reminder from one of the best films of 2022.
Kelly Baker is an alumnus of West Chester University of Pennsylvania.