World War I was a unique combination of devastating cruelty and ideological emptiness, and as such represents the very essence of war. Its more famous sequel had good and bad sides that were relatively easy to tell apart. On the other hand, who among us can say with conviction that the Allies had a clear moral claim on Germans, Austro-Hungarians or Ottomans in the 1910s?
Kings and leaders had feuded over land before, but never before had their peasants been armed with flamethrowers, mustard gas, and machine guns: tools designed to produce a consistent killing blow. The Great War – so horrific that no one at the time could imagine anything equaling its magnitude – was merely the first time that war could bear its ugly face without any semblance of chivalry.
This All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t need special effects to hold its own. It’s factual, and that’s its forte.
All Quiet on the Western Front (which released on Netflix in the US on October 28) is a documentary of that war, albeit technically fiction. Director Edward Berger’s German-language adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel and memoir (first made into a Hollywood film in 1930) acts like a mirror so clear it shows us the mistakes of our past that we’d rather ignore.
Compared to other stage and screen depictions of World War I over the past decade, All Quiet on the Western Front is not overly embellished. There’s no horse puppetry like the National Theater production of War Horse, which debuted on Broadway in 2011. It also doesn’t have the cinematic gimmicks of “1917” (released in 2019), which was edited to appear like it was shot in a single take. Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old also attributed its success to Jackson’s meticulous (though no less brilliant) war material restoration.
This All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t need special effects, star power, or cinematic innovation to hold its own. It’s factual, and that’s its forte. This is not surprising, since it was the brutal honesty of Remarque’s novel that made it so compelling. nothing new in the West, the book, was revolutionary for its portrayal of the struggle, which was as cynical as it was empirical. Like a good journalist, Remarque writes with sparse elegance, letting the cold mud and bullet-riddled corpses do the talking.
One of the defining characteristics of “All Quiet” is its unabashed depiction of the carnage on the battlefield.
The story follows Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a young man from northern Germany who is goaded into military service by his friends. A portrait of the ordinary amid extraordinary casualties, All Quiet never attempts to convince with anything more than an accurate depiction of the battles of World War I. Before the credits roll, an afterword notes how millions of lives were taken for perhaps a few hundred feet of enemy ground; The battle lines in 1918 did not look much different than in 1914. Accordingly, the first shot of the film – a forest panorama at dusk – is the same as the last.
Of course, the film isn’t a one-to-one duplication of the book, and some of the novel’s storylines and characters don’t end up in the script. Some critics have even raised concerns about the historicity (or lack thereof) of the events depicted in the film’s climax. Facts are important, but in the context of this story it’s more of a sophistry: the spirit of Remarque’s book is present despite the contradictions.
One of the defining characteristics of “All Quiet” is its unabashed depiction of the carnage on the battlefield. Even for someone who’s seen his share of slasher films over the years, the detail with which Berger depicts the carnage of World War I is harrowing; It’s so gory that many people might not get through the movie without feeling weak or sick.
Lively bloodshed is used for many films and TV shows to compensate for anemic storytelling; When the potency of death is diluted in this way, the end result is little more impactful than a computerized spaghetti western. But for All Quiet on the Western Front, violence – desperate violence, never heroic – is the driving force of the story itself, and it is necessary. One of the most impressive moments of the film occurs when Paul and his comrade Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer) witness the approach of Allied tanks: Kropp’s eyes widen with shock and he lets out a primal scream as he watches the tanks crush soldiers and explode randomly as tripods used by the Martians in The War of the Worlds.
“All Quiet” comes to audiences in the midst of the most devastating war in Europe since 1945.
The carnage in the film merely embodies the reality of World War I without ever crossing the line of plausibility. The film’s depiction of gouged eyes, clouds of blood, and burning bodies cannot be called exploitative when its basis is the real war that has itself exploited human lives. After defeating a French soldier in combat, Paul faces the torture of watching those around him spit blood and struggle to breathe; likewise we are compelled to see what man has done against man.
However, Berger is able to balance the scale of the bloodshed with the individual humanity of the lives lost. The camera pans across the no man’s land, surveying the corpses standing in an anguished tableau as if they were about to load a gun or crawl through the mud. In these shots, every body, every face, manages to convey a thriving life that has been aborted. A mass grave is filled with many individual tragedies.
“All Quiet” comes to viewers in the midst of the most devastating war in Europe since 1945. Granted, not every war film needs to be a commentary on the battles unfolding at the time of its release. The fields of France are not the Ukrainian steppes: where World War I was a desperate grab for power, whitewashed with the dregs of the bravery commanded by the old regimeVladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the result of deep-rooted genocidal hatred.
But there is a common denominator between WWI and Ukraine. That common trait is futility: the willingness of those in power to subject ordinary people to deprivation and misery, death and destruction, all for the sake of wounded pride.
In less than a year, headlines about Ukraine have become less frequent and less urgent, reflecting the public’s dwindling ability to feel shock at recent war crimes revelations. All Quiet seeks to shake us out of our languid complacency and sensitize us to the sombre cries of the battlefield – both World War I itself (which is chronically overlooked in 20th-century flashbacks) and the wars raging Earth today deface.
Disturbing as it is to say, having become accustomed to the horrors of the current conflict, it is refreshing and humanizing to feel horror again at the sight of war.