Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, with the German title Im Westen Nichts Neues, was first adapted into a film in 1930 by Lewis Milestone. Not surprisingly, Remarque’s anti-war book was banned by the Nazis. The German title literally translates to ‘Nothing New in the West’, but the book’s Austrian translator A. W. Wheen captured its essence in the phrase All Quiet on The Western Front, the title for the English translation.
German director Edward Berger who co-wrote the script along with Lesley Paterson and Iam Stokell, revisited the text to recraft it into a digitally enhanced 2022 rendition. The two hours and 28 minute German language film (on Netflix) is an expansive and immersive study of the psychological impact of war, its wasteful disregard for human life and loss of innocence, hope and humanity as seen from the perspective of a young soldier.
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It is 1917, three years after World War I began. The opening scene is a chilling portrait of the low worth of human life as a dead soldier’s uniform is repurposed and reassigned to a new recruit. Student Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his friends lbert Kropp, Franz Müller, and Ludwig Behm, enthusiastically enlist in the German army in 1917. Their illusions and excitement of returning home heroes and eligible bachelors are soon shattered.
The friends are posted to the trenches in Northern France, the western front, where they are shepherded by older, protective soldiers Kat (fabulously performed by Albrecht Schuch) and Tjaden (Edin Hasanović).
Berger bombards the viewer with elaborate and bloody battle scenes, in palates of greens and blues, with swathes of flowing red, lensed by cinematographer James Friend. He contrasts these with moments of vulnerability as the soldiers reflect on life after the war. Time passes. The boys adjust to the stench and sludge of trench-life, to the cocktail of dried mud and blood on their boots. Weary, hungry and depleted, the troops await orders of their next attack, exchanging thoughts and fears about returning to their homes and families. Through Paul and Kat we see the true impact on the soldier who knows there is nothing heroic about his experience.
When Berger zooms in on Paul’s face, as he uses guns, grenades, knives, any weapon to fight the enemy, he captures the true horror of war. Kammerer and Schuch convey the pain of killing another, of seeing a comrade die, of hunger and ebbing hope. Reflecting on the future, Schuch’s words to Paul capture the anxiety of men disconnected from but contemplating a return home. “We’ll walk around like travellers in a landscape from the past,” he says.
In a departure from the book, the filmmaker has added scenes of a ceasefire negotiation between a debt-ridden Germany and a stronger France. Daniel Bruhl plays officer Matthias Erzberger whose negotiations with the unwavering French leads to the armistice that came into effect on 18 November 1918. But these scenes simply add more running time to an already taxing screenplay.
News of the impending ceasefire is received with relief and jubilation in the trenches. But General Friedrichs is unable to reconcile to the thought of surrender. He commands one final attack before the armistice comes into effect, effectively sounding a death knell for the fatigued troops, their hopes of a heroic homecoming ebbing away.
It’s a tragic moment and one that pointedly reiterates Berger’s intent to show the devastating losses Germany suffered, disregard for life in the face of power, greed and pride. The tragedy is summarised when the once enthusiastic, now spent Paul says, “The stench will stay on us forever”.
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