The true cruelty of war: All Quiet on the Western Front

Edward Berger’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” is the first German film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic of the same name. The film, from Netflix and nominated for an Oscar, is not the usual war film: here’s why.
14 November 2022
Nulla di nuovo sul fronte occidentale

“All Quiet on the Western Front” tells the compelling story of Paul Bäumer (played by actor Felix Kammerer), a young German soldier on the front line in the West during the Great War. Paul and his fellow soldiers experience the initial euphoria of the conflict on their own skin, which inevitably turns into fear and despair, while in the trenches they fight for their own survival.

The film directed by Edward Berger is based on the famous bestseller of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, a veteran of the First World War. The novel was published in late January 1929; its success was so immediate that it sold, in the first 18 months alone, over 2.5 million copies translated into 22 languages.

The plot of the movie

Paul Bäumer, a young high school student, was fascinated at school by his teacher’s patriotic speeches and immediately volunteered to serve in the German military, even though he didn’t know what awaited him.

Together with him, his classmates also decide to enlist. They are all nineteen and they are convinced that they are living a great adventure, that they are destined to become heroes of their homeland. However, with the passage of time, the adventure turns into a tragedy, in which the bonds of support and comradeship that were used to overcome the atrocities and daily difficulties, vanish due to the horrors of the trenches.

A psychological rather than an action drama

The images of Edward Berger’s new edition of “Nothing New on the Western Front” are sometimes difficult to bear: anguish and terror pervade the feeling of the film. It is not the first film adaptation of the Remarque classic, but it is the first German film adaptation.

A scene from the movie

The film is neither an accusation nor a confession. It simply shows the ruthlessness of war, the nonsense of how hundreds of thousands of men are sacrificed. It’s dirty and brutal, there are melee scenes with blood splatter on the camera and mud everywhere. The war scenes are hard to digest, but the film deliberately wants to avoid the allure of the horrors of war.

In my opinion, the fact that the viewer was not fascinated by the horror of all these brutal scenes, but that he always looked away, was successful“, says assistant director Claudia Junk

Berger’s film is realistic and doubly chilling given the current developments in the war in Ukraine. The Netflix remake shows the horror at the front and is a powerful reminder of the current war. Berger states in an interview:

Basically, the story hasn’t changed. 100 years ago, young people went to war and were persuaded by demagogues through propaganda and manipulation to do so with storms of enthusiasm. It’s the same today. This hasn’t changed”.

The film impresses with its realistic, violent and current staging.

The reality of the war was probably even tougher than what the film shows in the drastic scenes of violence. Edward Berger says that giving up the depiction of violence or embellishing it would have seemed like a lie.

War film: a common thread that seemed to be interrupted

War films are known to attract a large number of audiences to the cinema and beyond. Despite this, it is clear to everyone that from Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Saving Private Ryan” onwards, there has not been a serious war film, which had the intention of fully recounting the sensations experienced in the battlefields.

Matt Damon, in a scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan

The war summarized in images and sounds by Spielberg, which conditioned all the cinema to follow, also opens this new transposition of the novel “Nothing new on the western front”, and does so through an excellent technique that invites the viewer to wonder why a films of this magnitude are not shown in theaters as well, apart from digital distribution.

That moment in which an army starts charging, combining excitement, speed, a lot of noise and virtually certain death of all. That moment in which trench warfare is shown, characterized by futile assaults, despair of the boys and death in no man’s land are the real strengths of the film.

Nothing new on the Western Front is a parable that brings together the lives and illusions of young boys along that conflict.

A film that narrates the horror of that war, of all wars: a warning to current governments and new generations to pursue goals of peace and integration.

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