Written by: Ian Stokell; Lesley Paterson; Edward Berger
Directed by: Edward Berger
Starring: Felix Kammerer; Albrecht Schuch; Daniel Brühl; Devid Striesow; Thibault de Montalembert
All Quiet on the Western Front is an intense experience, mostly by virtue of its realistic depictions of wartime violence. Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, Edward Berger’s adaptation loses some of the detail found on the pages but nevertheless adopts the powerful anti-war stance of its source, a descent into hell experienced through the eyes of a young man during World War I. It’s not subtle with its messaging, nor should it be.
The material has of course been adapted before (in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, widely considered the definitive version, and for TV in 1979) but Berger has the distinction of directing the first German adaptation of the property. The result is a breathtaking and completely devastating account that follows 17-year-old foot soldier Paul Baümer (Felix Kammerer in an impressive big screen début) as his romantic notions of becoming a war hero are quickly broken once he’s exposed to the realities of the front line.
The grim opening is a masterclass, establishing tone and theme with machine-like efficiency. A teen-aged soldier named Heinrich is killed in action and the scene cuts to show his uniform being stripped from his corpse and sent to a cleaning facility where it will be sent back out for a new recruit to call his own. When Paul, who’s forged his parents’ signature so he can join his mates in the good fight, receives his uniform and notices Heinrich’s name tag still attached, he’s simply told the uniform was too small and that “this happens all the time.” The moment passes as an afterthought — the adrenaline in Paul, galvanized by the patriotic speech delivered by his school teacher, overriding whatever concerns he has.
That excitement passes just as quickly when Paul and his friends Albert (Aaron Hilmer), Franz (Moritz Klaus) and Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald) arrive at the water-logged, disease-riddled trenches near the northern French town of La Malmaison and their first night gives them a taste of what they were never told in the pamphlet. It’s not long before shell-shock takes hold, transforming exuberant boys into statues. With the emphasis on Paul, Kammerer’s gaunt and wide-eyed countenance makes for a powerful canvas upon which the loss of innocence plays out.
Meanwhile, in a radical but still impactful diversion from the book, a second plot thread follows the efforts of German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) as he scrambles to put a stop to the mounting casualties in what he and other top brass already know is a lost cause. News of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II turns up the pressure to capitulate, yet Erzberger remains optimistic for productive discussions with the Allied forces. Brühl is very good portraying a pivotal historical figure, peaking with his high wire act of initiating peace talks with Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montalembert), who isn’t in a particularly merciful mood. The German Imperial Army has 72 hours to surrender, no negotiations.
From a standpoint of narrative flow the compromise here is apparent. The cuts back and forth sometimes feel disruptive, taking us away from what seems most urgent. However these pauses in the action are suffused with such tension and fatefulness they feel like essential inclusions, hinting toward the circumstances that fueled resentment and ultimately gave rise to a much darker period in German history. One of the most overt indications of where things are going is General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), an overzealous power-monger who’s willing to sacrifice any number of faceless patriots in order to secure his own personal victory.
While the movie is extremely violent — there are a few sequences here that rival the opening stanza of Saving Private Ryan in terms of the disorienting, overwhelming pace and perversion of the situation — there is a bluntness about the presentation that disturbs even more. Throughout the camera remains a cold and objective observer while Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson’s screenplay shares none of the idealism of its gung-ho protagonists who, on the cusp of manhood, are swayed by the idea of fighting for honor and courage for The Fatherland. In drawing attention to the endless cycle of death the narrative structure feels more like a machine itself.
All Quiet isn’t just intense; it’s exhausting and depressing. And that’s how it should be as well. A war film shouldn’t be easy to watch. Despite a final act that betrays logic (and history) somewhat, Berger’s approach is laudable for its brutal honesty and adherence to the spirit of the landmark source material.
Moral of the Story: Parts Dunkirk and 1917 with its immersive you-are-there POV, but more memorable for its Saving Private Ryan/We Were Soldiers-level of realistic violence, All Quiet on the Western Front is a war film that, as hard as it is to endure, might just be essential viewing.
Rated: hard R
Running Time: 147 mins.
Quoted: “What is a soldier without war?”
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