Directed by: Edward Berger || Produced by: Daniel Brühl, Daniel Marc Dreifuss, Malte Grunert, Clive Barker, Marc Toberoff, Lesley Paterson, Ian Stokell
Screenplay by: Ian Stokell, Lesley Paterson, Edward Berger || Starring: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Daniel Brühl, Sebastian Hulk
Music by: Volker Bertelmann || Cinematography: James Friend || Edited by: Sven Budelmann || Country: Germany, United States || Language: German, French
Running Time: 147 minutes
My favorite novel I was required to read in high-school was Erich Maria Remarque‘s All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues, or literally “Nothing New in the West”; 1928), based on the German author’s experiences as a conscripted infantryman in the same geopolitical theatre of the First World War (1914-1918). I only read the book once for my European History course, but that class was by far the most educational and enjoyable of my so-so secondary education, so the book’s literary power has stuck with me. A sort of Saving Private Ryan (1998)-esque de-glorification of the cold, uncaring, industrial horror of warfare, the novel and its multiple film adaptations (e.g. Lewis Milestone’s 1930 Hollywood theatrical feature, Dilbert Martin’s 1979 television feature, both of which are English-language variations) have become universal, cross-cultural, dare I say timeless symbols of antiwar and antinationalist sentiment. It was ridiculed in Remarque’s native Germany for several decades after its initial publication, the Nazi government (1933-1945) most of all, but its cautionary themes about the futility of war, about questioning jingoistic propaganda in any context, has stood the test of time.
Netflix’s latest critically acclaimed awards-contender is also, in an ironic twist, the first German-produced, German-language adaptation of Remarque’s classic novel. Though it makes significant adjustments to the original text as most adaptations do, substituting various macroscopic, geopolitical subplots for the novel’s more intimate yet meandering focus, this latest All Quiet on the Western Front (AQWF) translates its source material’s timeless themes through updated filmmaking technology, subtle digital FX shots, unforgettable set-design, and detailed, gritty combat for modern audiences. Co-writer and director Edward Berger (see also: The Terror ) approaches this adaptation with the sensibilities of a historical revisionist in terms of direction, placing his camera, both handheld and motion-controlled, in the muck with his cast as they charge through grimy, bloody, smoke-filled No Man’s Land.
Solid characterizations aside (see below), the most striking update to this newest AQWF is its direction. I haven’t seen anything else made by Berger, but his command here of mindful, emotional action sequences is captivating against a spectacular backdrop of Czech Republic location-photography and tasteful flourishes of digital color-grading. His portrayal of trench warfare through cinematographer James Friend focuses on main character perspectives first, where Steadicams in hand-to-hand combat and dollies in charges across No Man’s Land stick to protagonist Felix Kammerer like glue, reminding me of J. J. Abrams’ long tracking shots of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in desert landscapes of The Force Awakens (2015). Every now and then, Berger cuts to a massive wide-shot that depicts the epic scale of the Western Front, but these deviations are saved to punctuate Kammerer’s personal nightmare and the audience’s experience with him.
AQWF’s quieter, more dramatic moments are where the screenplay most separates itself from its literary source material, excising memorable yet longwinded subplots like our protagonist’s surface-level romance with a French civilian, his leave back home, his unit’s airbrushed, rehearsed inspection by the Kaiser, and minimizing his time in a No Man’s Land crater with a dying French soldier he knifed in the heart. In place of these moments, which work better on the page, writers Ian Stokell, Lesley Paterson and Berger spend most of the second and third acts on Kammerer’s interactions with his costars away from the front line. Supporting actors Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, and Edin Hasanovic all have moments to shine before their impactful deaths, emphasizing the movie’s overarching theme of once innocent, promising lives consumed by the meat-grinder of the “War to End All Wars.” Some of these characters, as well as various extras, are shot, stabbed, and blown away by mortar shells, while others are burned alive by flamethrowers or crushed into mulch beneath tank treads. These deaths are meaningful for the battle scenes’ contrast with the cast’s visual characterizations in their barracks, on patrol, and their secondhand observation of the horrors of war in which they did not participate.
Last but perhaps best of all, I must highlight AQWF’s stellar prologue and first act opening scenes, which together could be considered a standalone short film a la The Empty Man’s (2020) 20-minute introductory sequence. Berger’s narrative opens not with Kammerer’s introduction, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but rather with enlisted men (re: adolescents) collecting dog tags, clothes, and various types of used equipment from fallen soldiers in 1917 (3 years into World War I), which are then systematically scrubbed, repaired, and redistributed across a montage sequence to scores of new recruits; chief among the latter are Kammerer and his patriotic peers, who are unaware their equipment is hand-me-downs from fallen comrades. A recruitment officer even sweeps the old nametag of Kammerer’s reissued uniform under the former’s desk in a succinct visual display of dark comedy.
War films, anti-war films in the vein of Eric Remarque’s famous novel most of all, are cultural oddities for how respected they are by such disparate audiences, even those who dislike explicit violence on screen. History buff dads to old-timers to action junkies to artsy film critics usually find something that appeals to them in the better ones, and I’d argue that situation applies to this latest filmic adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front: It pays tribute to a classic literary piece, visualizes a fascinating historical event, takes time to humanize and develop all of its major characters, and delivers the grit, grime, and high production-values expected of contemporary action set-pieces. This homegrown German adaptation of my favorite high-school homework, in other words, has it all, which would make it easily recommendable to most anybody if it weren’t so God damned depressing.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Full of scenic vistas as well as horrifying, blood-soaked theatres of war, Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front pays audiovisual tribute to the timeless themes of Eric Maria Remarque’s seminal novel in ways that should satisfy both bibliophiles and fans of cinematic warfare. It’s in Front’s quietest moments, however, where the script shines brightest given its cast’s chemistry, memorable performances, and painful collective demise.
— However… All Quiet on the Western Front will depress the hell out of all audiences this holiday season, while diehard fans of the book will note more than enough deviations from the source material to drive them up a wall.