Germany’s Oscar submission is still a grueling wonder even if it doesn’t adapt the source material’s stirring introspection.
“Peace” and “quiet” are not the same, and it’s one of the many lessons awaiting those who will come and see Edward Berger’s latest feature. Interestingly, however, it isn’t the most apparent of lessons to pick out at the end of this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
The film presents vistas so still they resemble paintings, trees so undisturbed they might be statues. Only in extreme close-ups can you hear the fox cubs rustling. These are representations of “peace.” As for those of “quiet,” look at the immobile bodies—muddied, bloodied, or quicklimed. Witness the cutaway after an entrenching shovel’s violent “thwack!”. See the recycled uniforms drying out on clotheslines. Under James Friend’s supervision, all of All Quiet’s images are composed to affect. The best performers bring out the contrast between the tranquility of living things and the silence of the dead.
These extremes are present in All Quiet on the Western Front’s world for one simple reason: 1917. That’s three years into World War I—one year until its end. The old continue to convince the young to take up arms for notions glorious yet invisible, to define peaceful conditions as the outcome of quietened opposition. A statement delivered evocatively and without a hint of irony in the film demonstrates this: “The Kaiser needs soldiers, not children.” If, for any reason, you’ve been uncertain that Berger’s work is “1917from the losers’ perspective,” let those words be the deciding element.
As a believer of the “Iron Youth” package, the older men in charge would eloquently hawk, All Quiet’s school-aged protagonist Paul (Felix Kammerer) sees it ideal to lie about his age and enlist. For “Kaiser, God & the Fatherland,” he will fight, but also the ladies who he thinks can’t resist uniformed heroes. Of course, Paul is far from the only person with this admittedly simple mindset—his friends are Albert (Aaron Hilmer), Tjaden (Edin Hasanovic), Franz (Moritz Klaus), and Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald) joining the fray, too. Still, the script from Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell reserves the most attention for him. Interspersed throughout Paul’s ordeal, one that a combat veteran-slash-father figure Kat (Albrecht Schuch) often co-experiences, are dialogue-heavy efforts toward an armistice with the Allied Powers from Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl).
Under James Friend’s supervision, all of All Quiet’s images are composed to affect.
Unfortunately, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t opt for subtler strokes or give them as much attention as the maximal strikes because the more captivating telling resides there. What the characters don’t audibly point out or when the footage chooses to stray from the mainstays of war cinema—these are the better-to-best moments of the tale.
The beautiful visual storytelling unfolds in the background, emphasizing the war’s toll, showcasing the production’s immensity. The “terror of war” is more than not making it home. It’s also being unable to die right when one desires it most or marching on with decreasing humanity. Respite from the elements’ harshness also clarifies the battles’ brutality. There are moments during Peter and company’s desperate escape from flamethrowers and tanks that will encourage viewers to hide their eyes.
Again, these takeaways require viewers look beyond or away from the center of the frame. It’s an approach that can contradict Berger’s uber-upfront vision. Nonetheless, it is necessary to find resonance. If not, there is frankly nothing new in the West, much like the source material’s literal title, Im Westen nichts Neues. One could argue that there’s even less. Telling more than showing defines characters. Events unfold through extension rather than concision.
By looking beyond and away, there are seemingly more refreshing points to latch onto, those free from the overwhelming guidance of Berger and crew and the (fitting) bluntness of Remarque’s anti-war voice. That aforementioned distinction between “peace” and “quiet” is the most crucial one. None of the characters, thankfully, ever say this outright. However, when they encounter the “quiet,” they feel fearful and empty. Recalling bringing death to others, knowing their own time is up. Aware of the inevitable uselessness of the fighter should there be a ceasefire.
The same applies when people know what defines “peace.” Some of the boys get to be juveniles around a pot of goose stew. They muster up what little French they know to woo some girls. The soldiers talk about home. These moments bolster the material’s tragic quality better than the graphic exhibits because they examine the soldiers’ internal experiences. They let the film inhabit the same reflective plane the renowned text once visited, concluding with the same assertion that, at its core, war is an extinguisher of futures. If there were more, Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front would be excellent. However, in its current form, it’s still a commendable, if over-devoted to forcefulness, exploration of a catastrophe.
All Quiet on the Western Front premieres on Netflix October 28th.
All Quiet on the Western Front trailer: