Director Edward Berger adapts from Erich Maria Remarque’s famous 1928 novel in All Quiet On The Western Front, the book’s third film adaptation (the last one was a TV movie in 1978) and this year’s official Academy Award selection from Germany. WWI having had a bit of a moment these past few years (1917, They Shall Not Grow Old) All Quiet On The Western Front is the first one directed by a German, with German protagonists, and as such seems to have a distinctly different perspective on the action, the kind untainted by the victor’s bias.
If 1917 (and to some extent, War Horse) were stories of survival, gussied up with big technical gimmicks, All Quiet On The Western Front is an even more visually beautiful film that never lets you forget the main point about The Great War: that it was A Bad Idea That Ended Badly. Berger drives this point home studiously, meticulously, poetically, and by the end, a little repetitively.
This is a movie that’s more gorgeous to look at and does an arguably better job achieving what most of the recent WWI movies have attempted — to give us a visceral sense of what it was like being there. If 1917 was built around a technical gimmick (the single shot, no cuts illusion) and War Horse around a conceptual one (war as seen by horse!), All Quiet On The Western Front‘s chief conceit is magnificent cinematography (courtesy of James Friend). The effect is to leave you thinking more about its content than its construction.
Yet All Quiet On The Western Front is as relentless as 1917 in its own way, in its conception of itself as an anti-crowdpleaser. At their core, 1917 and War Horse were popcorn movies; All Quiet On The Western Front wants the Great War to curdle the popcorn in your mouth.
Felix Kammerer plays Paul Baumer, a fresh-faced schoolboy who forges his mother’s signature on his enlistment papers to keep from “being home hiding behind his mother’s apron strings” while his buddies Müller, Kropp, and Tjaden (Moritz Klaus, Aaron Hilmer, and Edin Hasanovic) are out winning the battlefield glory that’s been promised them by their patriotic teachers. In contrast to 1917‘s forced first-person perspective, Berger offers the audience background that the characters can’t see — like an opening sequence showing a uniform’s journey from dead soldier to garment repair factory to Paul, who is thrilled about his cool new uniform, if a little confused why the tag has someone else’s name on it. “It was probably too small for the fellow,” says the enlister, tearing off the tag. “Happens all the time.”
The “Instagram vs. reality” of it all sets in pretty quickly when they go straight from the technicolor formality of German society to the muddy, rat-infested trenches of the battlefield, where if the bullets don’t kill you, there’s always poison gas, disease, and hunger. An older soldier, Katczinsky, aka Kat (Albrecht Schuch, one of at least three actors here who are dead ringers for Daniel Day-Lewis) takes Paul under his wing and the two often go on adventures together, scavenging for food. Scrounging for food actually seems to be their main obsession, far more than patrols or the enemy — and in that small but distinct detail, All Quiet On The Western Front rings true.
Another thing that All Quiet On The Western Front captures better than any other recent WWI movie is the almost chivalric heraldry of pre-WWI society, which in spirit belongs much more to the 18th or 19th centuries than the 20th. Even just in the jaunty hats, the ornately-styled uniforms, the feathers and bushy mustaches (every bellicose asshole in All Quiet On The Western Front has a bushy, Kaiser-style mustache) you can understand intuitively why they were all so completely unprepared for the realities of mechanized warfare. WWI is such a stark example of the pre-industrial world colliding with the industrial one, which is a big part of what makes it so fascinating; soldiers who probably imagined themselves as knights on horseback getting lit up by artillery shells and belt-fed machine guns.
With Paul as our stand-in for the grunt soldier on the ground, Daniel Brühl shows up as the voice of reason at the top, playing anti-war politician Matthias Ertzberger, trying to convince the still-proud aristocratic old guard to sign an armistice before they lose more young men for no benefit. Like the war itself, it’s slow going at first.
It’s hard to quibble with much about All Quiet On The Western Front, which is gorgeously shot and evocative for most of its run time, but it does get a little repetitive towards the very end. It stretches hard for an ending that feels a little contrived compared to everything that came before. It goes for a kind of poetic symmetry, turning itself into a kind of Greek tragedy. It’s fine that it’s a feel-bad story, but in evoking more traditional forms of tragedy, it sells the particularities of its own story a little short. For a story about the senselessness and absurdity of the war, symmetry only detracts from that.