A Powerful Return to All Quiet on the Western Front
Can an anti-war film truly exist? The French filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut thought not, famously asserting that every film about war—no matter its initial aim—ends up inevitably glorifying armed combat. But German filmmaker Edward Berger's 2022 reimagining of All Quiet on the Western Front provides a powerful rejoinder to that sentiment. A sober retelling of the closing days of World War I from the perspective of soldiers on the German front lines, Berger's powerful new film emphasizes the futility and brutality of the so-called "Great War" in uncompromising fashion.
All Quiet on the Western Front follows Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer, haunting), a German teenager who enlists in the military with a group of his school friends. They banter over their future heroic exploits as officers bark with nationalist fervor; meanwhile, the German war machine tears dead men's names off freshly laundered uniforms, repurposed for their new recruits with clinical efficiency. This early sequence lays the groundwork for one of the film's major themes: the lengths to which people in power will go to obscure the true cost of war from the idealistic young men (children, really) who they callously throw into the death machine. The juxtaposition of this calculated human sacrifice against the patriotic enthusiasm of these boys is almost overwhelming: a lost generation squandered, blissfully chanting in dead men's uniforms.
It doesn't take long, however, for the realities of trench warfare to set in, as Paul and his friends quickly suffer casualties and experience both the brutal violence of the battlefield and the tedious continuation of a never-ending stalemate. These battle scenes are punctuated by brief reprieves as German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl, excellent as always) attempts to secure an armistice that both German High Command and the Allies can accept.
All Quiet on the Western Front is clearly influenced by Sam Mendes's 1917, a similarly epic film about the first World War, especially in terms of the visual style (from certain angles, Kammerer bears a striking resemblance to 1917's George MacKay). But there are key differences—like Volker Bertelmann's excellent score, featuring drums like gunfire and dissonant electronic flourishes that mirror the modern machinery of death generated by the first World War. And where 1917 was a marathon sprint across an endless battlefield, All Quiet is a treadmill, as millions of soldiers die in a futile back-and-forth exchange of a few yards across No Man's Land.
Like Steven Spielberg with last year's West Side Story, Berger faces the daunting task of reinterpreting a bona fide cinema classic and Best Picture-winner for the modern age. Critically though, unlike with past versions, audiences coming to this edition of All Quiet on the Western Front bring with them the knowledge of the still-to-come horrors of the Second World War made "The War to End All Wars" an inaccurate moniker. And as Europe faces its largest-scale military conflict in decades, the immediacy of this story and its message is more resonant than ever.
All Quiet on the Western Front is available on Netflix now.