With All Quiet on the Western Front (2022), we have a loose adaptation of the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, directly inspired by his own experiences in the trenches as a German soldier on the Western Front in WWI. I might add that the book gained such immediate recognition as a masterpiece of anti-war fiction that the Third Reich banned all sales, Remarque’s family was arrested and executed by the Nazis, and Remarque himself died in exile.
Not surprisingly, the novel has already been adapted a few times. Most famously, Lewis Milestone won the Best Director Oscar for his film adaptation all the way back in 1930. There was also a TV movie adaptation in 1979, shortly after Remarque passed away in 1970. And now, for the first time, we have a film adaptation that’s actually a bona fide German production. In point of fact, Germany has already selected this as their submission for next year’s Oscars. So let’s buckle up and dive right in, shall we?
The film opens with a brief prologue, in which we follow Heinrich Gerber (Jakob Schmidt) into the battlefield of WWI. Poor Heinrich is KIA before the opening credits. From there, we follow young Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) as he falsifies his age and enlists in the German army. Paul is initially confused because his uniform has someone else’s name tag — this is shrugged off as a clerical error, Heinrich’s name tag is casually torn off his old uniform, and that’s the end of this character we followed into battle at the start of the film. It does a harrowing job establishing the themes of the film, letting us know quickly and harshly that nobody is safe, anyone who dies will not be mourned in any way, and their blood will be put to immediate use in fueling the war machine.
Anyway, we’re three years into the war when Paul and his impressionable young buddies are recruited into the war effort with promises of honor and glory as they march into Paris. Shortly afterward, they’re literally getting blown to pieces in the trenches of the Western Front. But then a funny thing happens: We cut to a year and a half later.
It’s now November 7th of 1918, mere days before the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the collapse of the Prussian Kingdom, the armistice at Compiegne, and other such monumental historic events. The bottom line is that the war is virtually over, and the soldiers on the front line are savvy enough to see it. Which leaves them in a highly precarious situation.
Remember, Paul and his comrades have already gone through several months of hand grenades and gas attacks and watching their brothers-in-arms die in front of them. Yes, there is some degree of comfort in knowing that the worst is over, so as shitty as their living conditions still are, at least they don’t have to worry about getting shot and killed in a ditch somewhere. (That’s untrue, of course, but they don’t know that yet.) At least they can all bond over the shared experience of starving in the cold before they go home as soldiers who fought for a lost cause on what will assuredly be the wrong side of history.
There’s no chance whatsoever that any of the German war veterans are going back to the way things used to be. For one thing, they’ve all been irrevocably reshaped by the horrors of war. For another thing, their friends and loved ones will all have moved on, moved out, or been taken by the war themselves. And factoring in that the Germans have lost the war, these soldiers will be coming back to a nation freshly molded in the image of some new and unrecognizable government. Bad enough that these soldiers won’t be able to go back to their old lives and their old jobs, they may go back and find themselves actively vilified by the new status quo.
Yes, millions of soldiers died in the trenches of WWI. And the film goes out of its way to show the horrific cruelty and hideous bloodshed of war. For instance, there’s one point when Paul stabs a French soldier, leaving the poor Frenchman to a long, slow, painful death. And we watch every agonizing second of it through the conflicted and tortured eyes of Paul himself.
All of this raises the uncomfortable possibility that those who died in the trenches might have been the lucky ones. At the start of the movie, Paul enlists for the honor and glory. At the start of the second act, he’s fighting just to stay alive. But at the end of the movie, Paul is fighting because he doesn’t want to live anymore. He’s taking all of his trauma out on everyone else in the hopes that one of them will finally be the one to fucking kill him.
Of course, none of this is necessarily anything new. War is cruel, war is heartless, war is the unnecessary death and irreparable trauma of the naive youth for the wealth and ego of the elders, any halfway decent war film has already covered this ground extensively. But again, what sets this particular war film apart is that the war is practically over. Everybody knows that the French are going to win this and Germany will be left to pick up the pieces. But the French just have to keep going, sending more of their own soldiers to kill and be killed just to make sure the Germans stay down. Meanwhile, the Germans send their own soldiers to kill and be killed in some mad Quixotic delusion of making one last glorious stand.
It’s a ubiquitous question in war movies, but one that takes on overwhelming heft in these last few days of fighting: What the fuck is this all for?!
And then we have all the parallel plotlines that cut away from our protagonist on the front lines. Most notably, we follow Matthias Erzberger (an actual historical figure, here played by Daniel Bruhl), a German pacifist sent on behalf of the Reich to negotiate an armistice with the French. We’ve also got General Friedrichs (a character invented for the film, played by Devid Striesow), a lifelong soldier who can’t bear the thought of living without a war, never mind living with the knowledge that he lost a war.
On the one hand, these plotlines cost us a great deal of immersion. Easily the strongest selling point this movie has is in its harrowing and uncompromising depiction of Paul’s experience in the war and his steady psychological degradation. We lose that every time we cut away from Paul. On the other hand, I expect a significant number of viewers will be grateful for the release valve.
More importantly, the armistice talks are crucial because it reinforces the point that the war is almost — but not quite! — over. We’re watching the politicians dither and deliberate while knowing full well that soldiers are dying with every minute the armistice isn’t signed, and watching both happen at the same time only emphasizes the point. Even better, we see for ourselves that the French are acting like merciless assholes in victory, or perhaps they’re merely acting out of vengeance for all the losses on their side. Either way, Erzberger warns that if the French punish the Germans too harshly, their enemies will come to hate the peace. It’s a bone-chilling line for how it foreshadows the direct reason why a certain German WWI veteran got elected to power and caused so many greater atrocities in the following years.
(Side note: As if to prove the point, the real-life Matthias Erzberger became a controversial political figure for signing the armistice, with half — the nationalist half, specifically — of Germany branding him a traitor who sold out their country to the oppression of the Allied nations. Erzberger was assassinated in 1921 by a German right-wing terrorist cell, many of whom would later be key figures in the SS. Erzberger’s killers weren’t prosecuted until after World War II.)
Oh, and Daniel Bruhl is the only name actor in this picture and the plotline gave him something to do, so there’s that.
Meanwhile, Friedrichs proves that the Germans and the French are merely two sides of the same coin. While the French military brass are okay with keeping the war going so long as it means the Germans learn their lesson, Friedrichs wants the war to keep going so he and his troops can either take a glorious victory or an honorable death. Either way, the only reason the war is still going is because of damned delusional false pride on both sides. Thousands of men will die in these last few hours of the war, all for no reason at all, but at least the top brass will be safe.
Which brings me to another highly powerful point that the film makes in bringing up these parallel storylines: The contrast between the top brass and the soldiers on the front lines. Paul and his comrades are caked in mud and sleeping out in the cold while Friedrichs has his own private opulent living quarters on base. Erzberger gets upset when he goes to the bathroom and accidentally dribbles some piss on his shoes, while Paul and his fellow soldiers shit outside on the regular like it’s no big deal.
The French military brass grumble about how their pastries are a little bit stale. Friedrichs deliberately and repeatedly empties his wine glass onto the floor (?!) and throws scraps of cooked meat to his dog. Paul and company have to kill and steal livestock from the local farmers — under threat of gunshot by said farmers — just to eat. ‘Nuff said.
With all due respect to the actors — most especially Felix Kammerer, Daniel Bruhl, and Albrecht Schuch in the role of Paul’s CO/mentor — who effortlessly melt into their roles, the real star here is director/co-writer Edward Berger. I can’t possibly stress enough that he did a spectacular job of crafting an all-immersive portrayal of WWI and its vast array of horrors. The production design, the sound design, the photography, the lighting, it’s all stunning. Yet Berger also knows how to sprinkle in just enough comic relief with just the right timing to help us sympathize with the characters right before they’re invariably killed off.
All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) is one of those movies that demands to be seen ONCE. I’m sincerely grateful I had the chance to watch all two and a half hours of this on Netflix, when I could take it at my own pace and in the comfort of my own home. Yet even for watching this on a laptop screen instead of a big screen, the film lost none of its potency.
It’s a spellbinding, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, masterfully crafted piece of anti-war cinema. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is deeply compelling material for the awards season. Absolutely worth a look.