Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front is a literary masterpiece. Its anti-war message based on the events of World War I has retained its relevancy almost a hundred years later, with this movie adaptation – directed by Edward Berger for Netflix – bringing the story to the next generation. This German speaking war epic takes us on a history lesson back to the terrors of the trench war in a way that’s so breathlessly brutal, and its runtime of two and a half hours is a purposefully sluggish affair that forces you to feel the heavy toll of warfare.
The film opens with somber silence. The sound of wind and rain gradually filters in before being gifted some stunning shots of the surrounding woodlands and a skulk of foxes taking shelter. A nice image quickly sabotaged by an arial shot of a war barren wasteland, where the bodies of many a man from both sides of a brutal battle lay perilous and almost indistinguishable from one another amongst the muck and rubble. This opening captures the stark contrast between nature at its prettiest, and humanity at its ugliest, which is a running theme throughout Berger’s direction.
Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) and his school friends join many others in naively enrolling in the army. Heavy propaganda and a strong political push forces false hope on the youngsters who are taking up arms in the promise they will become their nation’s next heros. Before their deployment a professor speaks of their bravery and feeds them the ideologies of becoming the “iron youth of Germany” and their actions will build stronger foundations for the future. We already know this to be nonsense, and soon these young men feel the real effects of the war where you either stand and fight or die where you stand.
Paul collects his uniform and upon seeing the nametag of its previous owner, notifies the general who remarks it was probably ‘too small for the other fellow’, ripping the nametag off and throwing it beneath his feet like the hundreds of others before it, but we can put the name to the face, as he is the first character we meet within the gritty opening sequence of the movie. This scene plays out like the passing of the torch, only we’re filled with the likely scenario that history will just be repeating itself once again.
Berger’s direction is one that predominantly focuses on the action but takes breaks from all the bloodshed and brutality to show us the negotiations between the hierarchists of the German and French governments, who’s combative communication is to decide the fate of thousands of troops. This is where Daniel Bruhl’s (Inglorious Bastards, Captain America: Civil War) Matthias Erzberger plays a huge part. Arguing an armistice with the French army to halt the advances of the Germans as with the soldiers, we eagerly await an agreement.
Perhaps the strongest element of this remake is how richly it depicts war and how every frame, whether within the calmness or the chaos, the crisp and stunning cinematography always displays itself in bewildering beauty. Despite the barrage of bullets, traumatizing tank sequences and heavy-handed usage of murder and misery, All Quiet on the Western Front remains as poignant as ever in its narrative, but poetic in its execution.
We get a sense of camaraderie between Paul and those he serves with. Specifically, Kropp (Aaron Hilmer) with who he enlists with, and Kat (Albrecht Schuh) with which he creates a strong bond with early into his enrolment. But this isn’t much of a focus to its narrative, which is something I strongly appreciate.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a beast. It’s long, exhausting and tackles a heavy subject, but it does so with gusto. There’s so much detail and every scene has something significant to offer. No minute of its runtime seems wasted and not a single shot feels out of place or unwarranted. With the Oscar season fast approaching, Berger’s battlefield epic looks to bombard the competition with nominations.