War Is Hell, Again

‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ an effective adaptation of a classic anti-war novel

A visceral and mostly effective German adaptation of one of the grimmest and greatest anti-war novels ever written, All Quiet on The Western Front is finding a surprisingly large audience on Netflix. Maybe it’s because World War I is slightly in vogue as a subject. The last five years have seen three major WWI movies: Sam Mendes’s ‘1917,’ which came a hair away from winning Best Picture, Peter Jackson’s stellar found-photo documentary, and, somehow, Wonder Woman. All Quiet on the Western Front is about as fun as a trip to the oncologist, but it’s the best of the crop.

Directed by: Edward Berger
Written by: Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, Ian Stokell
Starring: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Daniel Brühl
Running time: 143 min

As a novel, All Quiet on the Western Front served as a kind of pre-Nazi German mea culpa for WWI, a cultural reckoning to resemble American efforts like The Deer Hunter, Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket in reckoning with Vietnam. It is brutal and unrelenting in its depiction of the horror and futility of war. Paul Baumer, a sensitive, artistic 17-year-old German boy, heads off to the front with his boyhood chums, full of dreams of glory for the Fatherland and marching into Paris. Instead, they march into a meaningless, filthy abbatoir from Satan’s nightmares. Their youthful illusions last about five minutes before they are screaming for their mothers under artillery fire. And it just gets worse from there.

‘Quiet’ is so effective because, though no one really won WWI, the Germans really lost. Mendes’s movie is full of terrifying set pieces, but it plays like a video game, and our hero survives his adventures. Wonder Woman is immortal. Jackson’s movie, while fascinating, is also kind of an “Over There” romp. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, the definitively best WWI movie of all time, still takes place largely in a tribunal, and, probably because came from the relatively conservative 1950s, spares us the scenes of flamethrowers roasting boys alive. ‘Quiet,’ on the other hand, portrays its sad German losers as filthy animals on a conveyor belt, subject to the whims of tyrants and fools.

This is a straightforward film, with dedicated performances, appropriately grim music, and rich if depressing period detail. However, it falters a little bit in the narrative construction. In Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, Paul’s story carries extra weight, because he signs up for the war in 1914, when glory still seemed possible. The film has him head off to battle in 1917, just as the Americans were getting in. By that point, all but the thickest skulls must have realized the futility of the cause. The book unspools Paul’s tragedy over four years, whereas the movie takes just 18 months. That’s plenty of time for things to go wrong in a war, but it still mutes the impact.

Then there’s the matter of narrative bloat because the film includes extended scenes of armistice negotiations between German “social Democrats” (liberals, essentially), and a cruel and unwavering French military junta, which knows it’s winning. There’s nothing particularly wrong with these scenes. The French commander sniffs over stale croissants while soldiers eat slop and die in the mud. And scenes of people pushing papers back and forth does provide some relief to endless footage of legs blowing off. But it also expands an already tough watch to two-and-a-half hours. They sign the Armistice, and we still have an hour to go. It’s the equivalent of cutting away from the D-Day invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan to show General Eisenhower gazing off at the horizon.

But despite these slightly odd script choices, All Quiet on the Western Front never really loses its focus on Paul’s doomed journey, or those of his sad comrades. “It is like a fever,” one of his friends says. “No one wanted it.” And that’s true. We’re all subject to the bloody whims of history and the deluded egos of so-called great people. This movie makes that point beautifully, and brutally, and does cinematic justice to an absolute classic of 20th Century Western literature.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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