All Quiet on the Western Front Goes Beyond the Trenches to Indict Warmongers

But the far looser adaptation loses some of the grunt's-eye view

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<i>All Quiet on the Western Front</i> Goes Beyond the Trenches to Indict Warmongers

I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war. — Francois Truffaut, in a 1973 interview in the Chicago Tribune.

I lived in Decatur, Illinois for a while, which has a major east-west street named after General John Pershing, commander of the expeditionary force in World War I. He’s memorialized in Washington, D.C. with a life-sized statue. And he faced a Congressional hearing for sending American soldiers into battle even though he was aware of the 11 A.M. armistice on November 11, 1918 that called for an end to the bullets and bombs and gas that had torn apart the face of France. Some 11,000 casualties were recorded on the day of the armistice, including 3,500 Americans. It’s possible some of them have a statue or a street named after them somewhere, I suppose, but Pershing was the only one who managed to live to enjoy all his shiny medals and die in bed 30 years later.

There are now, to my knowledge, three major screen adaptations of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. The first two were grim reflections of the wars of their time, and remain fascinating not just for their treatment of Remarque’s work, but for viewing them in the context of the time in which they were made: Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film landed in the precise middle of the two World Wars that forever reshaped Europe; Delbert Mann’s 1979 television adaptation inescapably called back to the Vietnam War. Edward Berger’s new adaptation, distributed by Netflix, is unique among these in that it’s actually a German-language and German-led production. Despite their clear dedication to paint a universalist picture of the futility and inhumanity of modern war, the previous productions were, on some level, putting an American spin on this tale. Berger (born in then-West Germany in 1970) is not.

It’s therefore somewhat perplexing that this adaptation ditches a lot of the particulars of the novel, widens its perspective characters to include top German brass, elides characters and even changes the particulars of major plot points to tell what amounts to an almost completely different story—one with a wider scope. By virtue of including two other characters, it makes an attempt to go beyond the trenches and indict the inhumanity of the people whose words cause wars. It’s wild, compared to the mostly faithful adaptations of the past. It also, inescapably, feels as if it’s more of a war film than the others, with more action scenes and necessarily less of an examination of the effect of war on the individual soldier. It’s a completely different perspective that is exceptionally well-shot and directed and raises its voice about Germany’s part of culpability for the war. It’s therefore profoundly frustrating that All Quiet on the Western Front, at times, bucks against Remarque’s thesis.

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Right from the jump, Berger shows us that this will not be a totally faithful retread of the novel. It opens on a young German soldier in a trench at the front, and follows his last disastrous moments. Then, it follows his body, so quickly discarded. After that, we watch as the usable portions of his gear are laundered and repaired by stone-faced women and repackaged. The name tag on the uniform is still there when Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer, whose wide-eyed, skeletal look is perfect casting) eagerly receives it as he prepares to get shipped off as a new recruit.

All Quiet on the Western Front also follows historical figure Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl, whom you might recognize from his turn as Baron Zemo in several Marvel productions). Erzberger is remembered in history for being an outspoken dove: A prominent politician and writer, Erzberger spoke out against the war and really did treat with France to sign the armistice that ended the war and which, to this day, remains on our calendars in America as Veterans Day (nee Armistice Day). For his part in ending the deadliest war in history, he was assassinated by right-wing terrorists in 1921. His inclusion as a parallel protagonist makes Berger’s politics pretty clear from the get-go: Germany bears responsibility for the suffering of Bäumer and his fellow soldiers.

Erzberger’s scenes of dining on rich food and having hushed conversations with unrepentant German generals—a total invention of the film, as the novel never leaves Bäumer’s perspective—are juxtaposed with Bäumer’s misery in the muddy trenches and frozen fields of France. For the film’s part, the particulars of the tense scenes in which Erzberger negotiates the armistice with France’s absolutely unsympathetic brass hats squares with historical accounts.

The two-and-a-half-hour film accordingly has a lot of extra stuff in it, and so it unavoidably must take away from some of the scenes devotees of the novel or the other adaptations will remember. The fiery schoolteacher Kantorek, an outsize villain in the other two films, appears here in precisely one scene. Bäumer never returns home from the front to experience the dissonance of civilian life, as he does in the book, which is perhaps the biggest omission. Bosom buddy Kat (Albrecht Schuch) is the most important figure in Bäumer’s scenes, such that his fellow schoolboy volunteers hardly show up at all, and Kat’s tragic end is totally, wildly different than in the novel and the previous films: Without going too deeply into it, Kat is far more personally culpable for his own demise. Kat’s death in Remarque’s novel is one of total random, impersonal cruelty—one amid a ceaseless tide of tragedies Bäumer experiences before his own wasted death on the front lines mere days before the end of the war. Berger isn’t letting anybody off the hook.

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Berger also adds scenes from the perspective of a fictional general, Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) who speaks in ultra-nationalist rants and spends his men like pocket change while he eats hot meals in a cushy field office. He decides he wants one last victory before the armistice officially takes effect, and so orders Bäumer and his comrades out onto the field to rush a trench 15 minutes before the ceasefire takes effect. It’s this final action that both heightens the tragedy of the original story and puts one of the film’s biggest problems on display: The movie’s war scenes lean heavily into the action. Kat and Bäumer spend no small part of the movie lobbing grenades and shooting French troops, blowing the treads out of tanks and manning machine gun nests. Even Bäumer gets a few licks in before biting it in this last scene. It’s incongruous and dissonant with the rest of All Quiet on the Western Front’s clear antipathy to war, and makes me remember Truffaut’s comment about film’s relationship to war all too clearly.

It is, nonetheless, the first All Quiet on the Western Front adaptation in wide release that we’ve got from an actual German perspective. As we grow more and more distant from the war to end all wars, that kind of reappraisal becomes even more important.


Kenneth Lowe’s body is earth and his thoughts are made of clay. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.