All Quiet on the Western Front

In 1917 Germany, 17 year-old Paul Bäumer (newcomer Felix Kammerer) is enthused about fighting for the Fatherland, his eyes set on victory in Paris.  Eighteen months later, he will not only have experienced the unimaginable but be ordered into a senseless slaughter just when everything is “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Laura's Review: A-

When famous films are remade, a common response is to wonder why, especially when the film, like Lewis Milestone's 1930 Best Picture winner, is a beloved classic.  But there are some instances when a second interpretation of the same source material can stand alongside its predecessor, especially when there is over ninety years separating them.  Such is the case with cowriter (with Lesley Paterson, Ian Stokell)/director Edward Berger’s (TV's 'Deutschland 83') adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, which presents war’s horrors more explicitly and realistically without sacrificing artistry or emotional power.

In 1917, we watch young Heinrich Gerber charge into a barbarous battle in the no man’s land between France and Germany, his body one of many thrown into an anonymous pile in its aftermath.  His uniform is stripped, fed into an industrial laundry and repaired in a vast sewing operation before being presented to fresh recruit Paul.  Noticing the name tag still attached at the collar, Paul is assured that it was ‘probably too small for that recipient,’ the label ripped off and tossed into a graveyard of others beneath a desk.  The machinery of war, its relentless intake continually spitting out young corpses, has already been laid startlingly bare.

Paul’s enthusiasm fizzles quickly under the constant belittlement of officers and punishing conditions of flooded trenches.  When he doesn’t put a gas mask on quickly enough, he’s forced to march with it on.  When his muzzle flare attracts a return bullet which knocks off his helmet, he belatedly learns to move positions after firing.  He survives the bombardment which causes a bunker to collapse on top of him after having seen a fellow soldier disintegrate in a shower of blood trying to evacuate.  Tasked with collecting the dog tags of the dead, he steps upon the glasses of schoolmate Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald) and breaks down crying.

Berger introduces historical perspective with Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl, "Rush"), a German convinced the war cannot be won who is heading to negotiate with French Marshal Ferdinand Foch with an eye toward saving lives.  Traveling in a plush dining car, he notes a colleague’s fussy consumption of breakfast from gold-rimmed porcelain.  His counterpart, General Friedrich (Devid Striesow, "Downfall"), believes German honor must be defended on the battlefield to the last man, as he, too, commands from luxurious surroundings, receiving an underling at a dining table the length of Putin’s.

It is now eighteen months after we first met Paul and we find him again, still with his best friend Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer) and Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), the man who taught them to avoid frostbite by shoving their hands down their pants and who keeps a pet beetle in a matchbox.  He and Paul steal a goose from a French farm, running under fire to their jubilant, starving comrades.  Tjaden (Edin Hasanovic) dreams of a cushy post-war job while Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus) gets up and follows a trio of French farm girls, returning with the lace hankie of Eloise, embroidered with a butterfly (a powerful symbol of Remarque’s novel and Milestone’s movie).  It is the calm before the final storm.

Director of Photography James Friend’s widescreen lensing embraces browns, forest greens and teals, lighting from a flare creating a moment of beauty over a no man’s land strewn with the dead.  He, Berger, production designer Christian M. Goldbeck, editor Sven Budelmann and the makeup department craft one of the most horrific depictions of war ever committed to film as Paul, his eyes popping from a mask of mud, watches tanks cross over his trench, his friend Kropp torched by troops bearing flame throwers behind him.  Kammerer, plucked from the Vienna theater, slowly descends into madness, a brutal attack on a French soldier turning to compassion as he eases the man’s final gasps.  In the film’s last moments, Berger repeats his opening cyclical device, this time with the collection of dog tags, for one last gut punch.  2022’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” is one of the great anti-war films.

Robin's Review: A-

Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) and his best friends at school are dazzled by patriotic fervor and the promise of grand adventure and enlist in the German Army at the start of the Great War. Honor and glory are not real but war is, in its brutality, as the young man will soon learn in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

I figure it has been about 50 years since I read Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel but I have seen the Louis Milestone-directed “All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)” many times over the past decades. As such, I had to fight my pre-conceived notions about the newest adaptation by director Edward Berger of that anti-war classic.

There are a number of “things” from the novel and the first adaptation that are iconic to the story. Starving troops getting a feast, an encounter with three pretty French women, the life and death of a French soldier and a butterfly are all given reference in this new version. Here, though, they are handled with an elegant homage to the first two works, novel and film.

Re-telling the story as I know it would be redundant for those familiar with the work. It is a story of the carnage and horror of total war and the devastating impact it has on its reluctant warriors. For those not familiar, it is the story of war through the eyes of Paul, played perfectly by Felix Kammerer, from his wide-eyed innocence to his eventual “thousand yard stare” caused by the numbing, daily horrors of war.

The filmmakers pull absolutely no punches about the totality of the devastation, on both body and soul, which war causes. Humanity is with your fellow band of brothers and extends no further than the barb-wire, trenches, hunger, disease and constant artillery bombardments taking place around their very small world. The rest of the world does not matter.

Felix Kammerer is excellent as the Everyman soldier and victim who does not want the war but is powerless to get away from it. It is a bleak story and your investment in each of the characters will cause you pain with each loss. The portrayal of the horrors of war is palpable, from the filth of the trenches to the soldiers’ coping with certain death on a daily basis.

The original novel was a scathing indictment of war and the 1930 adaptation was an extension of that indictment against war. Now, with war once again in our lives, the newest version is every bit as scathing in its depiction of the devastating horrors of WWI through Paul’s eyes.

All levels of production, from the look and feel of the trenches to the uniforms and weapons to the photography, sound and score, are all in keeping with the scope and depth of the storytelling. It is not a remake of a classic; it is a classic unto itself.

Netflix releases “All Quiet on the Western Front” in NYC on 10/7/22, expanding on 10/14 before streaming on 10/28/22.  It is German’s submission for the International Oscar.  The version screened for this review was dubbed in English, but the film is being released theatrically in German with subtitles.