A band of brothers must brave harsh conditions and the brutality of World War I in this new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s iconic novel.
A mere month before the start of 2020, World War I was the subject of 1917, an epic from Sam Mendes that left audiences and critics alike captivated by its grand scale and its successful implementation of a one-take filmmaking gimmick, although some corners of the film world thought that the trick distracted from its narrative. People in said corners will be equal parts riveted and devastated by this year’s entry into the growing canon of films about WWI, that being All Quiet on the Western Front, the third adaptation of the best-selling novel from Erich Maria Remarque about the German experience of what was at the time called The Great War.
All Quiet on the Western Front begins in 1917, where German teenager Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) enlists in the German army because his friends Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus), Ludwig (Sebastian Hülk) and Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer) have and he doesn’t want to be left alone. But after lying about his age in order to pass all the enlistment procedures, Paul is transported from his hometown to the German trenches on the Western front of Flanders, France, where the German and French armies clash. There, they are joined in combat by fellow soldier Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic) and led by Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), and within seconds of their arrival to the battlefield, they are ordered to the front lines, are met with teargas bombs and called upon to bail water out of their muddy trench flooding with rain.
Eighteen months later, the comrades are stationed in the French province of Champagne, where they dig trenches and rob farms of animals in order to obtain a decent meal for themselves. While this is going on, German bureaucrat Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) is tired of seeing the massive amount of casualties cross his vision, and tries to convince French authorities to surrender and end the war, while General Friedrich (Devid Striesow) wants the German army to continue fighting, not caring whether or not the war is winnable.
Co-writer/director Edward Berger’s film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is thematically familiar to other films in the war genre, as far as depicting the grim brutality of their conflict, the bravery of the soldiers involved and their longing to see their loved ones again is concerned. It even does what every war film has done since 1998 and replicates the instance from the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan where a character’s hearing drops out and he is forced to scan the field and witness the carnage around him.
But what’s fascinating about Berger’s take on the source material is the German perspective of WWI that comes through in its bleak and melancholy but honest and unflinching tone. The initial scene sees a soldier die on the battleground, his uniform and boots are stripped from his body and the name tags on it are removed, pronouncing it automatically ready for the next soldier in line for enlistment, immediately proposing that the soldiers involved feel like cogs in the proverbial machine that is the harrowing process of war.
And what complements this is the depiction of each character’s inner psychology and progression. An example of this comes in a brutal scene where Paul screams out loud for silence waiting for a French soldier he’s confronted to lose his life, as if to plead for not only the Frenchman to stop choking and die, but also to quiet the voices inside his head telling him to put his foe out of his misery.
There’s something reminiscent of the 1985 Russian anti-war epic Come and See in that regard, as Paul enters the war eager to fight for his country, only to watch in horror and sadness at the events that transpire among himself and his friends, getting himself caked in mud, soot and powder throughout the process of every horrific conflict as he progresses from a human trying to survive to an angry killing machine, with Kammerer’s facial expressions conveying his transformation with unbelievable intensity and power.
And yet, the brutalities of war have never looked more gorgeous thanks to James Friend’s cinematography. The landscapes of France are framed in painterly shot compositions that show the beauty of nature as well as the destruction wrought by war on humanity and the world around it, from achieving a light setup that makes the blue skies of the incoming dawn reflect off the faces of soldiers and even the grass on which they tread, to an early birds-eye-view shot of the bodies of dead soldiers scattered on the battlefront.
If there are any complaints to be had with this new adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, it’s that the score is most effective when its main leitmotif is at a somber, orchestral tone. Otherwise, when it’s performed by loud and raucous drones, the results are incendiary to the point of feeling intrusive. Berger’s latest film is also one that’s tough to watch for its grisly and violent war sequences, as well as its dour spirit. It’s also worth noting that the film does run long at two and a half hours, and impatient viewers will debate amongst themselves as to which attack sequence could have been cut for time, and whether the film could have ended sooner.
But cutting it short anywhere kills the power of the film’s conclusion, as well as All Quiet on the Western Front’s thesis about the futility of war and the pointless destruction that it wreaks. Audiences will want to see Paul make it through to the end, be angered by the juxtaposition of the German soldiers’ harsh living conditions with the lavish ones of their superiors, and be horrified by how easily the soldiers ransack the opposition’s army from their mess hall, only to break from their mission to eat some of their food without a word. All Quiet on the Western Front is tough to watch for its gloom and bloody battles, but those are in service to an honesty about war’s damaging nature in all facets, and that’s why it’s one of the best films of the year.