All Quiet on the Western Front
Directed by Edward Berger
Starring: Felix Kammerer and Albrecht Schuch
Now streaming on Netflix
In the opening scene of the latest screen adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, we see a beautiful view of a forest contrasted with the brutality, bloodshed and chaos of World War I trench warfare.
In an early sequence, a soldier is killed, his uniform removed, washed, mended and issued to new recruit Paul Bäumer (played by Felix Kammerer).
Remarque was a German WWI veteran and published his anti-war novel in 1929. It was adapted for screen in two English-language films in 1930 and 1979. But director Edward Berger has given us the first German-language version of this story, where we see Paul and his comrades quickly lose their nationalistic idealism as they experience the brutality of war.
When Paul realises that his uniform has another soldier’s name tag in it, his quartermaster tells him it was “too small for the fellow – it happens all the time!” before hurriedly snapping off the label. In other scenes, we see countless military identity tags of dead men being snapped in half — a vital illustration of the war machine.
In contrast to earlier adaptations of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul and his friends sign up for the war in 1917, nearly three years after it began. While nationalistic rhetoric would have been more convincing to recruits in 1914, by 1917 the reality of the war meant there was little enthusiasm amongst the ranks.
The majority of the film focuses on the period leading up to the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, when the German revolution forced Kaiser Wilhelm to abdicate and it was clear that Germany and the other Central Powers (particularly Austria-Hungary) were going to lose the war in the negotiations between the German and French military high staff to end the conflict.
In previous adaptations, it isn’t clear where the final events are taking place, but this time, we see among the German negotiating staff future Vice-Chancellor Magnus Erzberger, who would be denounced by the German far right as one of the “November criminals” blamed for Germany’s defeat and assassinated in 1921.
In parallel to this we see the German soldiers, desperate to go home, among them Paul and Corporal “Kat” Katczinsky (played by Albrecht Schuch). Their relationship is used to explore the brutalising effect of the war. They question whether they will be able to adjust to civilian life, with Kat saying: “They’ll all want to know if we faced close combat. We’ll walk around like travellers from a landscape from the past.”
In Berger’s adaptation, once the Armistice is announced, General Friedrichs — who believes the right-wing myth that “Germany was stabbed in the back by Socialists and Jews” — desperately wants to end the war with a German victory and orders an attack to start at 10:45am on November 11, 1918 — Armistice Day.
By comparison, other adaptations end with a dispatch stating it is “All quiet on the Western Front”.
John Anderson — writing in the Wall Street Journal — accused director Edward Berger of making pro-German propaganda and depicting scenes of “… the vindictive French generals … jamming their ruthless terms [of surrender] down the throats of the peace-seeking Germans led by Matthias Erzberger. These sequences sanctify the historical position that the onerous terms of the [Treaty of Versailles] are what led to Hitler and the Holocaust.”
While it is generally agreed by most historians that the harsh terms imposed on Germany in the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles laid the conditions for World War II, Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front uses the end of WWI to show the despicable patriotic posturing of the German High Command — who want to fight on at all costs. The film displays the futility of war in general while exposing the right-wing “stab-in-the-back” myth.
Moreover, All Quiet on the Western Front was so detested by the Nazis that screenings of the 1930 film were boycotted in Germany for showing the brutal realty of the war and not glorifying Germany’s role in it. The film was later banned by the Nazi regime and Remarque was forced to flee the country. His sister was executed by the Nazi regime for anti-Nazi resistance In 1943 — believed to be an act of revenge.
Ultimately, All Quiet on the Western Front is a powerful and timeless anti-war story, which shows the futility and horror of WWI. It is a powerful indictment of those in power who are willing to sacrifice lives in the pursuit of profit and glory. For this reason, the 2022 adaptation is worth watching.