A war film sets out to accomplish 1 of 2 things, if anything at all – serving as a constant reminder of how horrible, gruesome and grisly the act of war truly is for those fighting on the front lines, sacrificing their lives, and sharing stories of a nations triumph or inspiring heroism by individuals who made an impact on others close to them. All Quiet on the Western Front, the new 2022 adaptation just released on Netflix like many that have come before it accomplishes both within the first few opening moments of the 147-minute runtime with visceral brutality and unsettling honesty.
Without saying a complete sentence of dialogue, director and co-writer Edward Berger shows the horror of war with imagery of a collective of people digging mass graves, collecting uniforms, cleaning them of any blood and sewing up any bullet holes for the next batch of fresh-faced recruits to wear and continue the unrelenting cycle. Imagery that proves those in power lose sight of the little things during the height of a war, the men and women serving in the armies, fighting day and night for the ego of their fearless leaders and spared embarrassment. Why anyone would willingly sign up for war is beyond reason, and every war film proves how futile going to war is, but the influence and propaganda reigns over the innocence of young men.
That fresh faced recruit who was sucked into joining the war effort to become a hero of Germany by propaganda is underaged 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer). Once Paul and his small group of friends enlist, the reality of joining shifts into one of survival. The prospect of being a national hero dissipates with the threat of death creeping around every corner. Songs and cheers of pride are turned into fear, living in close quarters and proximity on the Wester Front, in trenches full of mud and water, fighting years to gain meters of ground from the French opposition.
Juxtaposing the long sleepless nights, the starvation and poor conditions are scenes of commanders of the armies taking full advantage of the luxuries in life – fine dining, warm clothes and soft beds. While men are dying on the battlefield on the infamous ‘No Man’s Land’, Politian’s argue in comfortable conditions over an armistice. Leading the way for the German side is Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), the only one willing to negotiate peace on the German side of the war while others around him remain too proud to admit defeat or take responsibility.
Based on the 1929 novel of the same name Im Westen nichts Neues by author Erich Maria Remarque, the 2022 version fully emerges the viewer into the film on the front line, during the final years of World War 1 or “the war to end all wars”. Full of grim chaos, Berger’s film doesn’t glorify going to war, like the previous adaptations, the subject matter is used as an accurate account of everyday life of a soldier. After arriving on the Western Front, Paul, and his friends Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer), Frantz Müller (Moritz Klaus), and Ludwig Behm (Adrian Grünewald) are quickly reminded that war isn’t something to be joked about or taken lightly. The 3 boys pressure Paul to forge his document to appear older so he can join the effort but with zero combat training, the friends are thrown into the fire, experiencing the horror and loss firsthand.
In addition to what a war film should accomplish, something that should be the number one goal – a war film should be a main advocate for anti-war. Though largely accurate to the source material, the sequence of events in the ‘No Man’s Land’ frontlines are hard to watch. Violence and bloodshed paint the frames of these scenes along with a sense of hopelessness. Death can come at a moment’s notice and those in charge treat life, as precious as it is, as a statistic – just another dog tag or a name ripped out of the uniform for the healthy and able bodied to walk around and collect.
Told from Paul’s perspective, Berger’s film is best to be watched in the native German language to compound the authenticity to the novel. As horrible as war is, the everyday struggle of a soldier is universal, something anyone who served can relate to. Just make it one more day. Their sacrifice is important, but it’s those who survive through the end that suffer the most. Written by Ian Stokell, Lesley Paterson and Berger, approach their adaptation with a loss of innocence. With each death of a close friend that Paul experiences, it changes him from romanticizing war to a cold shell of himself.
Felix Kammerer as Paul commands the viewers full undivided attention. For his debut, other than a 1998 film in which he was only 3 years old, Felix’s expressive eyes say more than any line of dialogue could. Eyes that swell full of excitement at the possibility of fighting for his country to showing hopelessness and loss in the aftermath of every battle. Surrounding Felix is an ensemble who take the challenge head on and give inspiring yet deeply tragic performances.
Roberto Benigni’s La vita é bella though taking place during the second world war has the opposite effect of All Quiet on the Western Front. Benigni preaches innocence is something to hold on to and keep close to your heart. Never does Guido change by the actions of the Nazi’s, he will do whatever it takes to shield his son from the true situation at hand, making a game out of being held in a concentration camp. Both stories are powerful in their own way, but both share the same anti-war message. No matter the approach to a war film, the thought of it should scare anyone of enduring what soldiers on the front life are forced to experience.
All Quiet on the Western Front remains to be relatable and timeless, arriving during a period of peril in Eastern Europe – a story that will remain polarizing for generations to come. Filled with breathtaking cinematography by James Friend, an intimacy that is rarely seen and heavy themes, Edward Berger captures the essence of the novel and makes it his own.
Screenplay By: Ian Stokell, Lesley Paterson & Edward Berger
Directed By: Edward Berger
Music By: Volker Bertelmann
Cinematography: James Friend
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Albrecht Schuch, Felix Kammerer, Moritz Klaus, Aaron Hilmer, Edin Hasanovic
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: October 28, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 27 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Based On: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque