Film Review – All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) begins with a powerful opening sequence. We open on a field of dead German soldiers, victims of WWI trench warfare. We see the bodies transported to a mass grave, but the journey doesn’t stop there. The camera follows their uniforms – gathered, washed, and mended to be used again. The entire process has a disconnected, mechanical feel, as though the soldiers and their clothes are placed on a conveyor belt. The uniforms are then given to a new batch of recruits, unaware that their journeys could very well mirror the previous owners. Some even notice the names of their fallen comrades have not yet been removed from the attire. The sequence reflects the inhumanity of war – how lives are used, lost, and replaced like commodities.
Among those new enlistees is Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a young kid eager to fight for his country. Galvanized by patriotic speeches, Paul joins the military with a handful of his friends. His face becomes the central image of the film. Early on, we see him excited, smiling, and full of life. But soon, the horrors of war weigh heavily on his shoulders. The face that once reflected honor and duty becomes caked with mud, dirt, and blood. The grime becomes a mask of death, with the whites of Paul’s eyes as the only remnant of his previous innocence. Kammerer delivers a star-making performance. He acts as a guide into the depth of war – a witness to the chaos and mayhem. He inhabits Paul as a person slowly losing his soul. Paul toes the line between hope and despair, and it is not until the very end we see what side he chooses.
Erich Maria Remarque’s novel (of the same name) is one of the great literary works of the 20thcentury, an anti-war narrative depicting the first major conflict of the industrial age. It would go on to inspire an Academy Award winning adaptation in1930 This latest version – directed by Edward Berger (who cowrote the screenplay with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell) – stands on its own as a gripping and visceral experience. It acts as a spiritual companion to the Sam Mendes directed 1917 (2019). Although that film took a British perspective and this a German one, the two feel like opposite sides of the same coin. This isn’t about heroic battles or feats of bravery, but simply about survival. There is nothing romantic about charging into war only to see everyone around you fall.
It’s been argued that war movies, by their very nature, are not anti-war. The idea suggests that combat on screen is inherently cinematic, therefore audiences are made to feel excited. If there was ever a counterargument, it would be this. Berger (along with cinematographer James Friend) structure the war scenes with excruciating detail. The tone and style make the visuals seem like they come out of a nightmare. When Paul and his fellow soldiers witness tanks appearing out of smoke and gas, it looks like the oncoming of hellish demons. Night scenes are lit by flares, revealing silhouettes of barbed wire and detached limbs. When the camera pulls out for a wide shot, bombed out craters sprinkle into the horizon, creating a landscape so unrecognizable we could very well be looking at an alien planet.
Although the war scenes are well crafted, the success of All Quiet on the Western Front lies in the moments in between. I was most moved when Berger focuses in on smaller points. These scenes allow characters the opportunity to express how the war is affecting them, and the lengths they go to see another day. Something as miniscule as Paul and others eating food carries significant meaning. An emotionally impactful instance comes when Paul’s friend Katz (Albrect Schuch) – unable to read a letter sent to him by his wife – has Paul read it aloud. The reaction on Katz’s face tells us everything we need to know about his character.
One of the many tragedies of war is seeing young men and women fight on behalf of those in power. One decision from above can result in countless lives lost. That theme is amplified with the introduction of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), the real-life German diplomat sent to negotiate the conditions of armistice with the Allied Powers. As discussions of peace take place, Erzberger feels the strain of time slipping away. Every minute wasted is another soldier left on the battlefield. Brühl convincingly translates Erzberger’s growing desperation. He understands that the longer they take to come to an agreement, the worse it’ll be for all involved. Erzberger’s story arc – although thin in terms of character development – is riveting because of the “ticking clock” element.
Although this iteration of All Quiet on the Western Front may not reach the cinematic heights of its 1930 predecessor, it is still a stunning comment on the tragedy of war. It depicts how death and devastation can have a ripple effect, from the top of the ladder all the way down to the trenches. Violence and bloodshed have long been entwined in the history of mankind. It is important that we remember our past mistakes in the hope of preventing them from happening again.