Down in the Trenches – All Quiet on the Western Front

As I mentioned far too many times I’m sure in the last year, the idea of remaking a previous Best Picture winner is essentially blasphemous as far as I’m concerned. In almost every case it either feels like the height of hubris, with a filmmaker basically saying they can do it better despite the older version winning the highest possible honors (i.e. Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story), or it comes off as creatively bankrupt and lazy, leading one to wonder why anyone even bothered (the 2020 version of Rebecca). In both cases, if I had my druthers, I’d make a rule change with the Academy to render these works ineligible. Some things have to remain sacrosanct.

The one exception I’d make is in a case like All Quiet on the Western Front, the Oscar submission from Germany, directed by Edward Berger. There are basically three reasons why I would give it an awards pass. One, it’s almost certainly only going to be up for International Feature, which in many ways is its own separate entity. Yes, foreign films do get general ballot consideration, and in recent years have gotten major attention and nominations (none more so than Parasite), but on balance, the odds are not high that voters will be asked to consider this remake for Best Picture. Second, it has been more than 90 years since the original, so while I wouldn’t necessarily default to allowing it on the basis of age, I can’t deny that filmmaking has evolved by leaps and bounds since then, and there is more than enough potential to do something amazing that the previous movie simply couldn’t. Third, and most importantly, this story is uniquely German. It’s based on a German novel about the German experience in World War I, and it’s being made by a German crew. That allows for a unique, and arguably more accurate perspective. The American version of this film won Best Picture back in the 1930s, but Germany itself hasn’t had their say yet, so I’m willing to bend my imagined regulations just a bit.

And for what it’s worth, this is a very good film that largely gets across the novel’s thesis about the dehumanizing horror of war. The major quibble I have honestly requires another degree of rules flexibility on my part. Normally, I don’t take into account an adaptation’s fidelity to the source material, at least not when judging the overall project. I understand the process, and the license that it requires. Some characters are composited or omitted. The order of events can be changed. Things can be added or taken away for the sake of the cinematic narrative. But most of the time, these changes are largely cosmetic and don’t really affect the impact of the story. Here, however, it does, and so I feel duty bound to explore the changes in this particular adaptation. In my mind there’s one particularly strong idea, but it also ends up diluting the final product.

For those who don’t know the book, here’s some brief background. The novel, written in 1929 by Erich Maria Remarque, has a title that literally translates to “Nothing New in the West,” referring to a communique at the end, with “West” or “Western Front” meaning the German frontline against France during World War I (the eastern front was with Russia). Remarque, who served in the war, wrote the novel as a stark yet fictional retelling of his experience, enlisting as an enthusiastic patriot eager to serve his country before seeing the reality of trench warfare and the associated mass death and trauma. The novel centers on Paul Bäumer, who signs up along with his schoolmates, and as the war wears on, his humanity is stripped away bit by bit with each battle, injury, and death of his brothers-in-arms. The novel is filled to the brim with tragic irony, as Paul and his comrades are turned into “men without fear” as Joker from Full Metal Jacket would say, because their ability to feel any emotion slowly wanes as the slog goes on without end. The search for internal peace becomes Paul’s only source of comfort as he continues to lose his very soul, and all of it for a military effort that cost millions of lives and ultimately went nowhere, as the lines barely moved more than a few miles in either direction for the duration. The utter futility of the mission only furthers these themes.

For the most part, Berger’s film hews close to those ideas, and even enhances some of them. The movie opens with a rather insightful yet damning montage, as the uniforms of dead soldiers are collected, washed, and mended, so that when Paul (Felix Kammerer, giving an excellent performance) does enlist, he’s given a “fresh” uniform that still has another man’s name sewn into the collar, which the recruiter quickly rips off, pretending it was a manufacturing error. Already we’re seeing how much this generation of young Germans is treated as fodder. As he and his friends are driven to the front line, they’re diverted by a field doctor who commandeers their transport vehicles to ferry the injured and dead, a great illustration that whatever delusions Paul and the others might have had about their military glory, it’s all about to be crushed. As soon as they arrive at the trench, they’re immediately bombarded with artillery shells, and one of Paul’s friends doesn’t even survive the night. Once the attack stops, Paul gets his first true taste of war in a scene reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, as he spends the next morning collecting the ID tags of the dead.

Paul eventually meets Stanislaus Katczinsky, better known as “Kat” (Albrecht Schuch), who becomes a mentor and big brother figure. Having already survived for more than a year, Kat teaches Paul and the others how to properly defend themselves during certain situations, how to cope with the carnage going on around them, and how to find little moments of joy. The bond Paul and Kat share forms the emotional core of the entire story, as Kat’s instincts and humor are Paul’s strongest links to the person he once was.

So far, this has all the makings of a great war epic as well as a solid adaptation of Remarque’s novel. Most of the soldiers apart from Paul and Kat – including Paul’s friends – act and look very similar to one another, reinforcing the fact that as agents of battle they have no distinct identities. This is compounded by heaps of mud and blood to obscure the actors’ individual features even further. The visuals and sound design are on point, with cinematographer James Friend employing a lot of the long-take techniques of 1917. We get a healthy amount of “thousand-yard stares,” and the graphic brutality of 20th century warfare is on full display. Volker Bertelmann’s oppressive score includes ominous low-register winds and horns to provide a sense of creeping doom. All the elements are in place to make this truly spectacular.

But then the film takes a diversion that I didn’t expect, and while it’s a solid idea, the execution ends up detracting from the plot. Once Paul and his companions have felt the hell that is any war, we jump ahead to 1918, and the negotiations that led to the final armistice on November 11. With the war effort not making much headway and resources running low, Germany is ready to surrender. Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) is dispatched to meet with the leader of the Allied Forces, General Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montalembert) to discuss terms. Meanwhile, German General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), a prideful officer with a lengthy family history in the military, is adamant that the fighting continue to the last man for the sake of national honor. He of course does all this posturing from a protected castle miles away from the action, enjoying plentiful food and wine while the frontline soldiers are starving.

This is a fantastic concept. It brilliantly shows just how cavalier military and political leaders can be while men are actively dying for them, a salient point even today given recent events. It also demonstrates the hypocrisy and cowardice of jingoism, which is explored in the novel, mostly through the character of Paul’s teacher, who encouraged all to enlist as their duty to country, but when he gets to the front himself he does nothing but hide. All of this, at least on the surface, really supplements the thematic heft of the story.

The problem is that we spend WAY too much time on it, necessitating that jump to what is essentially the end of the war. Part of the reason why the novel is so enduring is because of the relentless onslaught of violence and tragedy. Paul gets little glimmers of the life he left behind here and there, but the true strength of the story is in seeing how his mind and personality erode over the course of countless assaults. One of the most aching scenes occurs when he’s trapped in No Man’s Land with an enemy soldier, who he ends up killing to save himself. It’s his first confirmed kill, the first time he knows he’s taken a life, and just for good measure, it’s an agonizingly slow death. Paul eventually breaks down and begs the corpse for forgiveness, realizing the finality of what he’s done. It’s the last vestige of what made him a good, loving person, and it destroys him to know that he’s just thrown it away, no matter how justified he might have been in the moment.

That scene is recreated for the movie, but it comes so close to the end that it hardly matters. The emotion is lost, because we haven’t really been able to keep track of Paul and the toll the war has taken on him. There are fits and spurts, like the discovery of a dead regiment, but it all feels so rushed because we spent so much time on palace intrigue and political negotiations. It’s almost like the Star Wars prequels in that respect. We don’t want to see exciting battles. No, the real meat is in trade disputes and treaties!

As such, we don’t really see Paul’s journey so much as bullet point it. He and the others talk about some harrowing experiences, but rarely do we actually witness them. Thankfully, when we do get to see things unfold, it’s devastatingly and gorgeously rendered, but for the most part, it’s the equivalent of when a kid is told to count to 100 and he just goes, “1, 2, skip a few, 99, 100!” This leads to an almost contradictory set of pacing issues, as the story breezes past crucial developments before it slows down to a snail’s pace for the climax, which Berger really wants to draw out for the sake of the tragedy. Unfortunately, he’s built up so much of the anticipation for the end of hostilities and the hope of a return to civilian life that the on-screen text noting the time jump to 1918 might as well have been accompanied with “Two Days to Retirement.” Even if you’ve never read the book, the ending is so telegraphed as to rob the audience of any reason to care.

It’s really a shame because again, all the pieces were there to make something superlative. The production values are exquisite, some of the photography is almost poetic, and the performances are fairly strong. The anti-war messaging of the original work still gets across, and in that respect, the film succeeds. But it could have been so much more had Berger and company not decided to fix what wasn’t broken. The novel is almost entirely told from Paul’s perspective, but if you want to supplement things with the occasional nod to the powerful people who send these young men to die without a second thought, that’s fine. However, you need to do it in a way that doesn’t shortchange Paul’s story by pulling focus, thereby necessitating some really confused pacing to compensate and making it increasingly difficult for the audience to remain engaged. It works if Paul is just one of any number of nameless people sent into the fray, but he’s your main character, and the entire point of the book is to show how he and all the others were made to become expendable, while emphasizing the lives they deserved to lead instead of having everything taken from them. To rob us of that personal journey is to completely defeat the purpose of Remarque’s novel.

In short, this is a really good war movie, but it’s a shit adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you read the original novel? Who are you rooting for in the International Feature competition? Let me know!

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