All Quiet on the Western Front historian’s review: An ambitious, visceral exploration of life and loss in WW1
This year’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal novel is the first to be produced in German, and its “quiet authority”, writes cultural historian Bethany Wyatt, makes a strong case for being the finest First World War film to date
Generations of historians, literature scholars, and schoolchildren are intimately familiar with Im Westen Nicht Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), which is perhaps the seminal fictionalisation of (young) men’s experiences fighting in the Great War.
Initially serialised in 1928, the novel by German writer and ex-serviceman Erich Maria Remarque was a firm rebuff to the established genre of adventure war fiction, with its intention to portray the cruelty of conflict and its impact on the human body and spirit. Now, more than nine decades since its publication, and the release of the (Oscar-winning) first adaptation in 1930, the story has been adapted in German for the first time. It’s a decision which immediately cultivates a quiet authority.
The film centres on 17-year-old Paul Baümer (played by Felix Kammerer), and his friends Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer), Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus), and Ludwig Behm (Adrian Grünewald), who all decide to enlist in 1917. It charts their journey from idealistic youths, expectant of an adventure and the opportunity to cement their masculinity, to men horrified by the realities of industrialised conflict.
For those familiar with First World War cinema, there are commonly seen characterisations in All Quiet on the Western Front: the terrified boy desperate to go home; the more experienced soldier who is (mostly) adept at managing his emotions; the disabled serviceman anxious about his prospects; the men of authority who manipulate the recruits and espouse the honour of warfare (the viewer cannot fail to spot the irony in the phrase: “The Kaiser needs soldiers, not children.”) But it is important to note that this is faithful to the spirit of Remarque’s novel, which was among the contemporary literature that provided the initial inspiration for such tropes in British and Hollywood cinema.
An additional layer to Remarque’s story
Where the film most notably diverges from the source material is in its presentation of an additional layer to the story (achieved by omitting Paul’s training for service and his visit home on leave). This consists of regular scenes of what is happening behind the lines, featuring (real) politician Matthias Erzberger (played by Daniel Brühl) as he leads negotiations for an armistice, and General Friedrich (Devid Striesow), who is determined for his troops to fight to the last rather than submit to a capitulation. Erzberger carries a personal motivation which accelerates his moral conviction that the war must end, and these scenes give rise to a race-against-time atmosphere as the viewer anticipates whether Paul and his friends can endure.
In the group’s everyday experiences, there are resonances to the emotions felt by First World War soldiers across nationalities. These include excitement at the arrival of post, joy in food (and misery when supplies are meagre), and humour in surreal and bleak circumstances. The film also explores the anxiety that servicemen could experience during periods of prolonged shelling.
More like this
As the narrative progresses, Paul’s circle extends to the more experienced soldiers Stanislaus ‘Kat’ Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch) and Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic). Paul and Kat’s friendship is the core of the film, with the latter serving as an (unconventional) father figure. In the novel, the power of the pair’s friendship is often unspoken, but the adaptation includes new scenes which delve into their dynamic. Two of these additions underline the physical – but not emotional – separation from loved ones.
Remarque’s idea of a disconnect between soldiers and civilians is nevertheless nodded to by Kat: “All they’ll want to know is if we fought in close combat. We’ll walk around like travellers in a landscape from the past.” As with other First World War films, portrayals of comradeship are frequent, and here its employment occasionally includes a tactile attention, from the smoothing down of a uniform to an embrace.
Invoking the longing for home
Director Edward Berger’s thoughtful use of material culture crafts additional emotional threads. A uniform name badge, a scarf, a theatre poster, photographs – they all tell a story (some connected to the novel). The wider visuals are impressive. Beautiful landscapes add moments of tranquillity, with the juxtaposition of forests, hills, and sunrises with the chaos of No Man’s Land suggestive of both the desecration of war landscapes, and a longing for home landscapes.
Indeed, a passage in the novel sees Paul suddenly struck by visions of his town: “[English translation] The parachute-lights soar upwards – and I see a picture, a summer evening, I am in the cathedral cloister and look at the tall rose trees that bloom in the middle of the little cloister garden […] Between the meadows behind our town there stands a line of old poplars by a stream […] We loved them dearly, and the image of those days still makes my heart pause in its beating.”
The film’s use of idyllic landscapes bears similarities with another recent First World War film – Sam Mendes's 1917 – which featured cherry blossom as a motif.
Environmental visuals are a potent force in All Quiet on the Western Front’s visceral battle scenes. Representing the sensory experience of trench warfare, Paul exists in close proximity to the earth, sheltering in shell holes, crawling along No Man’s Land. With a close-up of mud encrusted on half his face, it is as if Paul himself is being subsumed into the war’s landscapes.
In keeping with the unflinching descriptions of warfare in the novel, the film contains harrowing scenes of acts of violence and their aftermath, presenting the use of weapons such as bayonets, sharpened spades, tanks, and flamethrowers, and the graphic injuries which result.
The camera compels the viewer to follow Paul, vicariously experiencing the tumult of battle and desperate frenzy of close combat. In the later stages of the film, Paul remarks fatalistically to Kat: “I can’t discard two years of hand grenades like a pair of socks. We’ll never get rid of the stench.” One of the most affecting scenes, taken from the novel, sees Paul confronted with the reality of death in the most intimate way as he is compelled to remain in close quarters with a Frenchman he has fatally wounded.
Speaking of endings, it is difficult to match the power of the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front’s conclusion, which has endured as one of First World War cinema’s most memorable moments, striking in its simplicity and symbolism. However, the 2022 adaptation succeeds in crafting its own elegy for the men who did not return home.
With a terrific cast and arresting score by Volker Bertelmann, All Quiet on the Western Front is by far the most powerful example of its genre in recent years. Indeed, it makes a strong case for being the finest First World War film to date.
All Quiet on the Western Front is available to stream on Netflix from Friday 28 October
Bethany Wyatt is a cultural historian of the First World War. You can find her on Twitter @wyattBeth