War on Film – All Quiet on the Western Front

TAYLOR DOWNING reviews the latest film releases.

In the late 1920s, a spate of novels and memoirs fundamentally challenged the prevailing view about the First World War. They emphasised the futility of the conflict, the endless sacrifice, and the comradeship of the men in the trenches that often isolated them from civilians back home. This view has come to be the dominating interpretation of the Great War, highlighting the horrors of trench life, telling of a troglodyte existence amidst the mud and barbed wire.

In Britain, there was Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929), and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), along with many others. In Germany, Erich Maria Remarque captured this same mood in 1929 with Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) and his book became an international bestseller. By the end of 1930 it had sold 2.5 million copies in more than 20 countries, including a million copies in Germany alone.

The book tells of a group of young German schoolboys who rush to enlist in 1914, excited by the prospect of fighting for the Fatherland. It shows their gradual transition from young idealists to embittered and disillusioned soldiers, and paints a truly gruesome picture of the horrors of trench life and the pointlessness of endless attacks that never achieve anything but the death of so many young men.

In Hollywood, Universal Pictures bought the film rights and Lewis Milestone directed what has become a classic anti-war film, released in 1930. Its impact was immense, and the film won two Oscars.

In 1979, Paul Monash adapted the novel for a lavish TV movie directed by Delbert Mann that kept close to the original narrative. The central role was played by Richard Thomas, who had been ‘John Boy’ in The Waltons. This was a much grittier role. The movie also featured Donald Pleasance, Ian Holm, and Patricia Neal. Although this remake appealed to a new generation, it did not have the impact of the black and white original.

Now, for the first time, there is a German-language adaptation of the book. Edward Berger is the director. Berger is also a screenwriter who has directed many fine television productions, including the Cold War thriller Deutschland 83.

The British writers Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson first tried to raise money to produce a new version of All Quiet on the Western Front in 2011. They were unsuccessful, however, until they teamed up with the Berlin-based production company Amusement Park and Netflix agreed to fund the film. Berger as director joined the writers to complete work on the screenplay.

Image: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

Dead men’s clothes

The film begins with a long drone shot across a cratered battlefield littered with dead bodies, Allied and German. In the German lines, the men prepare to attack and, at the sound of whistles, go over the top into the hell of a First World War human wave assault. Men are killed left, right, and centre. Exploding shells tear up the ground and destroy bodies. Brutal hand-to-hand fighting breaks out as the Germans enter the French line.

After the action is over, the Germans bury their dead in mass pits – but only after their boots and uniforms are removed. The clothing is taken to a giant laundry. Then it is repaired in a workshop where hundreds of women sit at sewing machines. The old uniforms are readied for the next recruits to wear.

When the central character in the new All Quiet is given one of these uniforms, he sees another person’s name tag in it and says it must belong to someone else. The label with the previous, dead owner’s name on it is unceremoniously cut out and the jacket is returned. He dresses in the uniform and is proud and excited to wear what are, in reality, dead men’s clothes.

Image: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

This new version of All Quiet differs considerably from the original novel. The book begins in 1914, when a group of seven German schoolboys, excited by the patriotic talk of their schoolmaster, decide to join the German Army. The new version begins in the spring of 1917, when the war has already ossified into the stalemate of the Western Front.

In the new All Quiet, a schoolteacher addresses the boys with oratory reminiscent to a modern audience of a Hitler rally. As the teacher gets them more and more excited, extolling the youngsters to join up, he screams, ‘Modern warfare is never about the individual, it’s about the whole’ – a very fascistic idea, in which individuals are seen as part of the mass who lose their identity within the group or nation.

The schoolteacher rises to a dramatic crescendo, declaring, ‘The future of Germany lies in the hands of its greatest generation… You! So to battle.’ The boys cheer wildly. This is a powerful scene, and it is clear that Hitler-like rabble-rousing nationalism will not end well.

Image: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

In the new film, the central group is not seven schoolboys but only four, and the youngest of them, Paul Bäumer (played by the relatively unknown Felix Kammerer), is only 17 and needs his parents’ permission to join up. He forges his father’s signature to enter the army with his friends.

The new film then bypasses several chapters of the book in which the young boys are turned into killers through a period of brutal training. The film gets the young recruits very quickly to the front, the implication being that the need for replacement soldiers is such that they are rushed into combat with the bare minimum of preparation.

The central theme of All Quiet, the loss of idealism and the cruel disillusionment of the young boys when they confront the reality of trench warfare, is rushed through very quickly in the new film. They are driven in lorries to the front but have to give up their transports when they are needed to carry away the badly wounded.

Coming under shellfire, the Lieutenant tells Bäumer that ‘you’ll be dead by dawn’. When they reach the front trench, the conditions are appalling. On their first day, one of the boys comments that ‘this isn’t how I imagined it’.

Image: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

The terror of life on the Western Front is conveyed well. At night, looking into no-man’s-land, there is the blinking of distant lights, and the scarred landscape is occasionally lit up by flares. Then comes a French attack preceded by a creeping barrage. The soldiers take cover in a dugout, but it receives a direct hit. Bäumer is buried but is pulled out from the debris, alive but severely shaken. French soldiers get into the trench. The frightened young faces of the boys well capture the prevailing sense of fear.

After the attack, the soldiers are told to collect the dog tags of the dead men. Bäumer finds the body of one of his schoolfriends and is distraught. It is all unspeakably filthy and a dreadful baptism of fire.

No one is much interested in the boys or their feelings. Only one veteran soldier, Katczinsky, known as ‘Kat’ (superbly played by Albrecht Schuch), shows any feeling or human warmth towards the new arrivals. Bäumer’s friendships with Kat and another veteran, Tjaden (Edin Hasanovic), become the central relationships in the film. It is a close comradeship born at the front and nurtured by the brutalities of war. On several occasions they sit and reflect about what the future will bring. They all have opportunities post-war, but their wartime relationship is so strong that they often conclude, ‘I’d rather sit around the campfire with you and the others.’

Image: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

The film then takes an even more radical turn away from the book. In the original, Paul Bäumer returns to his home village, which he barely recognises. Hardened by the experience of war, he cannot relate to all that once seemed so familiar. At his old school, the teacher is still encouraging a new group of boys to join up.

The older men of the village have their views on how to win the war, which Bäumer finds impossible to listen to. They have no grasp of the reality of life on the Western Front. It is only to his mother, who is dying of cancer, that Bäumer finds he can relate. At the end of his leave, he wishes he had never come home.

But none of this is in the film, which jumps forward to 7 November 1918. As viewers, we know this is only days from the end of the war. The German High Command are horrified at the unsustainable scale of the losses. The film then follows the story of Matthias Erzberger (played by Daniel Brühl). Erzberger was a German politician who had initially supported the war but came to recoil from it, and in July 1918 forced the Reichstag to discuss a Peace Resolution. He continued to argue for peace, alienating himself from the right wing and the militarists in Germany but gaining increasing support from the poor, who were struggling with hunger and increasingly harsh living conditions.

A scene from the 1930 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Erzberger travels on a luxury train to Compiègne in France to begin negotiations with the Allies. For me, this part of the story was terribly laboured. Obvious contrasts abound. Shots of the men eating their dreadful rations at the front are intercut with Erzberger consuming a fine breakfast. Everything on the train is refined and posh. Everything in the trenches is filthy and wretched.

When Erzberger meets the Allied delegation, led by Marshal Foch, he asks for a ceasefire for the duration of the negotiations. Marshal Foch hands the German an Armistice agreement. He makes it clear there is no negotiation, no ceasefire, and that Erzberger has 72 hours to sign. There will be no concessions.

There is one final scene from the original that is still painful to watch. After an attack, Bäumer finds himself in a giant waterlogged crater in no-man’s-land. Into this same crater jumps a French soldier. They fight and Bäumer stabs the Frenchman in the chest. Wheezing horribly, he dies a slow, lingering, and painful death. Bäumer is filled with remorse and no longer sees him as an enemy soldier but as a fellow human. He gives him water, and repeats, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Finally, the Frenchman dies. Searching in his pockets, Bäumer finds a photograph of the man’s wife and daughter.

The scene is not only visually powerful but plays on one of the central themes of All Quiet, which is that the war is being fought by young men who have so much humanity to share. It is only their nationality and the war frenzy of their elders that divides them. Young men who would in normal circumstances get on well are killing each other pointlessly. It is a scene that will live in everyone’s memory of the film.

Fine elements

From this point, the film loses any connection with the book and drifts off into a level of unreality. An unnamed German general fumes at the Social Democrats and the pacifists who are seeking peace. Back in the railway carriage, Foch repeatedly ignores Erzberger’s pleas to be reasonable to the Germans. ‘This is capitulation,’ Erzberger tells the French war leader.

The 1930 film adaptation was a major critical and financial success, further enhancing the fame of author Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) [pictured here]. Image: Wikimedia Commons

But the Kaiser abdicates and German soldiers begin deserting. Erzberger reminds the rest of the German delegation who are for holding out that 250,000 Americans are arriving in Europe every month. And in the east, the Bolsheviks are threatening to overwhelm Germany. When he receives a message from Hindenburg and the new Chancellor to accept the Armistice, he reluctantly signs. The Armistice will come into effect at 11.00am that day, 11 November.

Meanwhile, German troops have been pushed back by a tank attack. The German general announces that to restore national pride he must recapture the lost territory. In a final act of craziness, he orders an attack, which goes ahead at 10.45. Still the dying continues until at 11.00 whistles are blown as the Armistice comes into effect. Finally, the soldiers stop killing each other. No such incident took place along the Western Front, although firing did continue right up to the time of the ceasefire.

There are several fine elements to this new All Quiet. The trench scenes, the over-the-top attacks, and the sequences in Casualty Clearing Stations are powerfully presented. Felix Kammerer as Bäumer has an expressive face, which is just as well as the camera lingers on him for several long takes. Usually, his face is caked in mud and filth. But still his penetrating eyes have a haunting effect.

But at 2 hours and 27 minutes, the film is at least half an hour too long. When Remarque wrote the book, Hitler was the leader of a small marginal party in Germany. But this version is very much shaped around his story over the next few years. The rabble-rousing schoolteacher is a Hitler-esque figure. The general who blames the Social Democrats and the pacifists for humiliating the German army provides the basis of another myth that Hitler pursued relentlessly throughout the 1920s: that the German army was still undefeated when sold out by the peacemakers. Hitler of course also blamed the Jews for the national humiliation, but in 2022 such an absurd lie as this is clearly too dangerous to repeat.

The new All Quiet on the Western Front will, I’m sure, be popular and, like the British feature film 1917 (directed by Sam Mendes), will bring the horror and futility of the war to a new generation. But for me, its real strengths are when it is close to the original book, and its weaknesses are where it diverges to try to tell a different story altogether.

The original All Quiet

In 1929, Carl Laemmle, the pacifist founder of Universal Pictures, acquired the rights to All Quiet on the Western Front and appointed Lewis Milestone to direct. In an anti-war gesture, filming began on Armistice Day 1929.

Milestone’s film kept close to the novel’s narrative. He gave it an epic quality using 2,000 extras, including many German army veterans living in Los Angeles. It was also one of the first ‘talkies’ – its audio track brought to cinema audiences for the first time the sounds of war, with the explosions of battle, the artillery fire, the machine-guns and the screams of the wounded.

The film was released in the USA in April 1930 and had a huge impact. It won Best Picture at the Oscars, and Milestone won the Best Director Oscar. In Britain, where the mood had already turned against the war and a spirit of pacifism was spreading rapidly, it received rave reviews.

But in Germany the Nazis, still a relatively small right-wing party, found the film offensive, claiming it harmed the image of Germany and insulted the memory of soldiers, who were only seen wailing in fear and wetting their pants. A protest at its opening provoked a ban and, when the Nazis came to power a few years later, Remarque’s book was one of those classed as degenerate and burned. The film was not seen in Germany until 1952.

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
Directed by Edward Berger. An Amusement Park and Netflix production starring Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, and Daniel Brühl. English subtitles. Available on Netflix.