German Director Edward Berger offers an utterly harrowing, grueling, dark interpretation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic German anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. I must say that watching this film in the original German is really quite a powerful experience. For a war that is often neglected today, a remake of All Quiet on the Western Front was sure to be a risky decision, knowing that it would forever be compared to its predecessor film released in 1930 (one of the greatest war films ever made), however Berger still manages to add something entirely new with this interpretation of the story. All Quiet on the Western Front joins the ranks of a small but mighty cohort of World War I movies released in recent years, such as Sam Mendez’s incredible 1917.
The film opens with a vast panorama of the sheer, excruciating brutality of trench warfare. Locked in a stalemate along the Western Front, France and Germany continue to annihilate countless scores of young men while gaining almost no ground. The setting is the Summer of 1917 –a year of mounting casualties with Germany in need of new supply of young men to fight the war. We meet Paul Bäumer who, inspired by fiery jingoistic speeches propounded by his local schoolmaster, enlists in the military along with his friends. The teenaged boys –heads full of heroism and patriotism– are immediately sent to the northern border with France along the Western Front. Here they are quickly greeted by a muddy, swampy wasteland filled with disease, dead bodies, rats, shells strewn about, barbed wire, and constant explosions. Night raids and sniper fire are frequent. We see long protracted scenes of soldiers shrieking in agony, limbs hacked off, men burned alive by the use of flame-throwers, and poison gas which kills dozens of soldiers who fail to don their gas masks in time. For those that survive crossing into no man’s land, hand-to-hand combat ensues, and soldiers are often stabbed to death by bayonets –indeed, this film powerfully portrays Paul’s infamous emotionally gripping scene as featured in the book in which he brutally stabs a French soldier to death while hiding inside a foxhole in the middle of no man’s land. However, the French soldier slowly chokes to death surrounded by a pile of French and German corpses, and Paul heartbreakingly apologizes to him. He opens the dead man’s jacket to find a photograph of his wife and young child –and a horrifying realization. Suddenly, it dawns on Paul that this Frenchman is hardly the one-dimensional image of a vicious killer he had been sold by his country, instead this is simply another human being who has likely been pumped full of his own pack of patriotic lies. Paul tearfully tells the man’s dead body that he will find his wife and child after the war –however, we in the audience know this will never come to pass. Both men’s stories will remain forever lost among the feverish, hellish nihilism on the Western Front.
The tone of this film is appropriately foreboding and ominous. It should be noted that there is a bit of historical revisionism in the end as the armistice agreement is finally signed on both sides. Already, the armistice spawns a narrative of “betrayal” and being “stabbed in the back” as Germany is reluctantly compelled to sign the peace treaty despite it being a blatant effort to permanently demoralize and punish the whole nation. The decision to sign the treaty provides the seed for the future birth of fascism and the emergence of a truly vicious, resentful form of extremist conservatism under Adolph Hitler. At any rate, even after the armistice is signed in the film, the Germans still issue one final invasion through no man’s land (in reality these battles which took place after the war were more often spurred on by the French). The hungry and beleaguered soldiers cross once more through sniper fire, explosions, machine gun spray, mud, corpses, and barbed wire into a dark region where nothing green can possibly grow, only to meet their fate after the war’s end. Paul engages in hand-to-hand combat which nearly sees him drowned in a dirty puddle of mud and blood, but he is then stabbed to death and left to die like so many other forgotten soldiers in the trenches. It presents a distinctly different ending from the haunting image of the butterfly which closed out the classic 1930 film.
This grim fatalism pervades throughout the new version of All Quiet on the Western Front and it fits in fashionably well with contemporary trends in movie-making, however it perhaps goes without saying that this film is not the right picture for your average moviegoer. Despite noticeably deviating from the original source material, this is still a powerfully haunting war film –a potent, vital, harrowing portrayal of the hideous monstrosity of trench warfare during World War I. Personally, I think it would be great if more movies are made to remind us about the “The Great War.”
What is extremist conservatism? I’ve never heard of that before, especially associated with Hitler.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Insofar as conservatism is a right-wing ideology, Nazism was an extreme brand of the old guard conservative nationalist elite classes in the Weimar Republic. Hannah Arendt has some great reflections on this topic, particularly on how ordinary Weimar conservatives in the Reichstag were perceived to be hypocritical by the public, while the more populist conservative rhetoric of the Nazis was thought to be much less hypocritical about achieving the same ends –overcoming old resentments (i.e. treaty of versailles), scapegoating minority groups and blaming them for the country’s problems (i.e. immigrants, Jews, liberals, academics, the media etc), promising to usher in an economic boom contra the prevailing hyperinflation at the time, and defending Western civilization in favor of the perceived racial/religious/cultural purity of the nation. Therefore, Hitler and the Nazis represent an extremist, perverted, hideous branch of the conservative ideology. Thanks for stopping by-
LikeLiked by 1 person
OK. I had not ever read or heard Nazism described as conservative. Right wing, yes.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Interesting how such films in this generation, certainly remakes, can really broaden our consensus of all the darkness in history that have influenced such cinematic art over time.
LikeLiked by 2 people