“You have to be brave now. For those who didn’t make it. For us all.”
Director Edward Berger wastes no time plunging his audiences into the terrors of war in All Quiet on the Western Front. The use of heavy-handed imagery of a young fox suckling at his mother’s teat—a calm presence of nature—only to be thrown into the bowels of war, is evidence of where these soldiers’ journeys will take them. Start to finish. We find a hellscape of epic proportions, as a young soldier named Heinrich runs through the vastness of “no man’s land.” Bullets flying, and explosions barely miss him. Who is this Heinrich? Germany will see him as but a number in a large bulk of casualties that will pile up by the end of the day. However, just before his death, the camera pans leading our eyes elsewhere.
Heinrich is stitched up before being placed into a coffin. His clothes are washed and sewn up, and before you know it, passed along to a new group of recruits. Heinrich’s unlucky uniform now rests in the hands of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer)—a young schoolboy who is volunteering for the German Army along with his friends. “Sir,” he tells the officer at enlistment, “I believe this uniform belongs to another soldier.” The officer takes the uniform with Heinrich’s name on the tag. “I’m sure the uniform was just too small for him.” The officer rips the tag off the jacket. That is end of Heinrich.
The naïveté, or just plain overwhelming innocence, consumes the boys as they gather in a room eager for the battlefield. The German patriotism oozes from their pores as they believe they must fight for their country. They’ve been fed a mindset that there’s nothing that shows a “real man’s strength” than to head to war. But no sooner is the excitement diminished as they find themselves within the trenches flooded with water, disease, and freezing temperatures. One by one, Paul and each of his friends find themselves in situations confronted with the horrific realisms of war.
Though put to film twice before, this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, has more historical references woven into the grain of the film. Berger broadens its scope and takes us to the German and French officials trying to agree on an Armistice that will end the war. But for those officials who want peace, there are those who are consumed with pride, and do not want the war to end. But by the film not staying with Paul and his friends, their fates come quick without fully getting to develop an audience connection. In addition, it takes away from Paul’s important trip back home. Therefore, realizing his life will never be the same.
If I may list out the positives of Western Front, let me say this, the direction, acting, and most of all, Joseph Friend’s cinematography are all beyond outstanding. A true Best Picture Oscar contender if I ever saw one. However, that’s not what makes the story of Western Front special. Remarque wrote the novel based on his own experiences as a soldier during World War 1. It screams anti-war, which you can clearly see in each of the novel’s adaptations. However, with this recent adaptation, I found this theme diluted for a more 1917 or Saving Private Ryan approach to filmmaking. A war epic. The film needed to have tethered the soldiers to their home more, thus creating a more innocent side to these soldiers. Therefore, its message of anti-war, unwavering nationalism for one’s country, and sending these boys off at such a young age, would cut that much deeper. If I may be so blunt, all I kept thinking was this was just a carbon copy of 1917. But in the end, 1917 knew what it was, and did it better. Now, if we look at Western Front as any old war film, then it’s truly amazing, but it loses its source material, and that breaks my heart—the element that sincerely makes it a great war film. A masterful story.
I was only five-years-old when I saw the 1930 adaptation of Western Front for the first time. The ending has stayed with me all these years—only later was I able to fully understand the message. I appreciate this new adaptation for the gritty, grotesque images of war it brings to the audience—full scale. To say the least, the film is brilliantly strong, but hits weaker. Any telling of this story will be a sobering reminder of the horrors of war. Western Front will always be an incredibly prolific tale that should be seen by all, as it’s still as important now as it was so many years ago.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Directed by: Edward Berger
Starring: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Adrian Grünewald, Edin Hasanovic, and Daniel Brühl