"All Quiet on the Western Front" Review
French New Wave film critic and director François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) always lived by his statement that “there’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” Considering the films produced around this time, it’s easy to see why Truffaut would have that opinion. Henry Fonda and John Wayne starred in The Longest Day and The Green Berets, which depicted strong, strapping men leading their troops into heroic battles to topple tyranny. Those movies made kids want to be soldiers, as reality was replaced with spectacle.
Unfortunately, Truffaut died in 1984, just before Oliver Stone had his one-two punch of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, and Steven Spielberg (one of his dear friends, who he starred for in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) delivered the definitive American World War II film in Saving Private Ryan. Most audiences and critics would agree that those films are anti-war, even if the action in them is a sight to behold. And I feel confident in saying that Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front will be added to that venerable list.
As a director, Berger combines many different elements from some of the best films within the genre. The large-scale and gruesomely detailed battles harken back to Saving Private Ryan. We see more mud than blood as the soldiers fight for nothing more than to survive another second. The major drawback of this being released by Netflix is that the large majority of viewers will not experience the film in a theater, where the distressing sound effects ring throughout the room as shells and bullets blow by. And Volker Bertelmann’s (aka Hauschka) masterful score plays a similar role to Hans Zimmer’s in Dunkirk, creating an anxiety-inducing and haunting experience even during peaceful moments.
This is not a remake of the 1930 American film version, which was awarded Best Director for Lewis Milestone and Best Motion Picture at that year’s Academy Awards. Instead, this is a readaptation of the 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque about his experiences during The Great War. Our story begins and ends with 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer, exceptional in his first screen role). He joined the German army along with his friends in the name of patriotic duty. But dreams quickly turn to nightmares once they reach the Western Front in Northern France, where the promise of a brutal death is more of a guarantee than the sky is blue.
As a slight departure from the source material, writers Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell juxtapose the scenes of carnage with those of the “fat pigs” that wield power. One is played by Daniel Brühl, who is on his way to sign what would become the Armistice of 11 November 1918, which, along with the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, set such harsh terms on Germany that it’s believed to be one of the main causes for World War II. The French negotiators are not seen as heroes here, as they let their upper hand corrupt their morals. Going back and forth between this and Paul’s storyline, we get the sense that this war did not involve winners and losers. Everybody was a loser as they lost something mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. And in the end, there was no point to any of it.
In the film’s harrowing opening sequence, we follow a coat worn by a German soldier. The man dies in battle, and the coat is plucked off his corpse. It’s then shipped back to a factory to be washed of the blood, mended, and given to a new recruit. It’s moments like this, of which there are many, where Berger masterfully illustrates the futile self-fulfilling cycle of death that war creates. All Quiet on the Western Front is not just the best film of the year, it’s one of the best of its genre.