All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) - An Anti-war Film That is Anything but Quiet
Zachary Osbourn, Music Associate, Radio FWD
(Photo: TIFF/Edward Berger)
Directed by: Edward Berger
Starring: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Edin Hasanovic, Thibault De Montalembert, Daniel Brühl, Devid Striesow
For decades, filmmakers loved making movies about WWII and finding new ways to show the allies kicking the Nazis’ ass. After all, it’s very clear to the viewer who the good guys are and who the villains are. However, WWI is a war that isn’t explored often in film or media leaving countless stories and history untold. Luckily in the past decade, we’ve seen the release of the video game Battlefield 1, the academy award winning movie 1917, and Peter Jackson’s stunning documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, all of which give audiences a fresh perspective on what the war was like. And while Sam Mendes told a very compelling and ambitious tale in his film 1917, the scenery and colour of the film felt too calm. But now with All Quiet on the Western Front, Edward Berger shows that the war was downright terrifying.
The film follows Paul Bäumer, a young German who lies about his age to enlist in the Germany army along with his friends. They are fed patriotic notions that the war will soon be over and that Germany will march the streets of Paris in victory. However, immediately upon entering the trenches, Paul realizes the true reality and harshness of the war and his battalion relies on the help of an older veteran to guide them in order to survive. Constant shelling, ferocious flamethrowers, and the brutal destruction of Allied tanks are only some of the horrors that Paul faces throughout the film’s two and a half hour runtime. What sets this adaptation of the novel apart from the past two (1930 and 1979), is that this film takes place in the last year of the war and there’s an intriguing subplot involving the great Daniel Brühl who is in charge of negotiating with the stubborn French for an armistice. This subplot becomes a race against the clock to see if Paul and his comrades are able to survive long enough to see the ceasefire enacted.
All Quiet on the Western Front in my opinion may be the most accurate WWI film in terms of its depiction of the brutality and gruesomeness of the war. Soldiers are shown being obliterated by shells or flung dozens of yards, some drown and struggle to survive craters that are filled with mud, and some are lucky enough to be shot and killed instantly from a gunshot. In addition to the horrifying scenes, the film is painstakingly detailed, as it shows some soldiers using their shovels to attack the enemy, or find food by raiding local farmers in the french countryside. The film doesn’t just show these graphic images as a shock factor, it uses these scenes to help deliver its anti-war message. Seeing a bloodthirsty German General order young troops to go over the top and attack minutes before armistice fills you with the same dread and anguish that Paul himself experiences and helps hammer home the message of how ridiculous and pointless the war is.
It’s not often we see a German perspective from the world wars and to finally have an adaptation of the famous novel created by Germans with German speaking actors was enjoyable to see. Sometimes Hollywood and American filmmakers glamourize war movies with comedic dialogue and flashy explosives that don’t seem fitting of the time period. Personally, I find the way European filmmakers approach the world wars to be more realistic with their effects and with the overall cruelty, depravity, and atmosphere of the wars (e.g. the Soviet WWII film Come and See, and German films Das Boot and Stalingrad). With the anxiety-inducing score by Volker Bertelmann and beautiful cinematography by James Friend, it is no wonder why this film was Germany’s selection for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars as it executed a nearly perfect anti-war film.