Poster of the new German version:
Poster of the 1930 Hollywood version
‘ALL Quiet on the Western Front’ won the BAFTA best film and the Oscar best international feature awards. It is based on the classic anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque (a German who is himself a veteran of World War I) set during the war in the Western Front comprised by France and Belgium.
WWI was fought from 1914 to 1918 and Remarque’s work came out serialized in a newspaper in 1928, then published as a book in 1929. It’s original title is “Im Western Nichts Neues”, which literally means “Nothing New in the West”. The English translation has become a common description when there is no visible change in a situation.
Told from the first person point of view of a young soldier (like Sam Mendes’ “1917”), it describes the physical and mental trauma of those who fought in the war and their alienation from civilian life when they returned home. The book was translated in 22 languages and sold 2.5 million copies in its first 18 months of release. It was banned and burned in Nazi Germany during the time of Hitler.
It was first filmed by Hollywood in 1930, just a year after the book came out, and won as Oscar best picture with an all American cast led by Lew Ayres. It had a budget of $1.2 million and earned $3 million, which was big at that time. It was remade as a TV movie in 1979 starring Richard Thomas.
The new version is an all German production, with English subtitles, helmed by Austrian-Swiss director Edward Berger. The lead character is Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer), a 17-year old German high school student. He and his friends are idealistic young men who enlist as soldiers in the war full of energy and enthusiasm, eager to prove themselves as grownup men, all hoping to be a hero as they gloriously fight in France.
But they soon have a harsh awakening to the gruesome realities of war. It all becomes a matter of survival. Remarque wrote his book hoping it will be an eye-opener to end wars, but as we all know German expansionism also ignited World War II that lasted from 1939 to 1945.
The movie is very timely today, specially now that we see harrowing news footage of casualties in the Ukraine war, and with the threat of Russian and Chinese expansionism lurking out there. The film is surely a timeless warning about the horrors and atrocities of war, no matter whose side you are with.
Paul and his friends start as vigorous proponents of German nationalism. They die one by one and as the film goes on Paul is reduced as a weary soldier so broken physically and emotionally he cannot even recall why the terrifying war started to begin with.
The film has many memorable scenes, like Paul gathering the dogtags of dead soldiers in the trenches. When he stumbles on one of his close friends, he breaks down and cries, but he has to move on to the corpses of other dead soldiers.
We see the uniforms of the dead soldiers being removed, forwarded to a warehouose where they are washed, the bullet holes repaired and then sent to be used again by newly enlisted recruits while the carnage goes on.
In another unforgettable scene, Paul is trapped in a bomb crater during a long siege with a French soldier. He stabs the soldier then sits by his injured enemy while watching his poor victim writhing in pain.
Paul becomes remorseful, morphing from hate to having natural compassion for a fellow human being who is suffering. Paul later asks for forgiveness from the dead soldier.
One can say that the film doesn’t really offer anything new as there have been many indelible films shown through the years that vividly capture the brutality, absurdity and pointlessness of war.
Among the best is Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket”, Weir’s “Gallipoli”, Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”, Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, and many more.
The difference of the new film from past versions is that it shows us military high command authorities from both camps negotiating for armistice to end the war. This clearly shows that these power brokers are so safe in their offices, so far away from the battlefield where young soldiers are tragically killed and sacrificed like cheap, disposable pawns in a war that is not even of their making.
And now, history is repeating itself with those young Russians being compelled by Putin to fight in the Ukraine. How sad! What “All Quiet” lacks is dramatic gravitas. As an anti-war film, there are many cumbersome portions as it skimps on showing human drama.
The movie is very well crafted and has superior technical aspects, specially the war scenes shot in the trenches when French tanks attacked the German soldiers. But the characters feel like they’re underdeveloped.
We really wish we could have invested more personal emotions in them. For a while, we’re even wishing they should have gotten a better looking new actor as Paul, but we think they got Kammerer (who definitely doesn’t look like a teenager) as his ordinary looks have an everyman quality in it that underlines how common his plight was as an ordinary cannon fodder.