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On October 28, Netflix released a film adaptation of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. This film adaptation of the book is the first filmed in German. Directed by Edward Berger shows the war directly: dirty, bloody and meaningless. The authors say that in the context of the war in Ukraine, the film is perceived in a new way – and once again makes us think that killings on the battlefield should not be romanticized.

The new film adaptation of the anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque begins in the trenches on the battlefield – in mud, mud and gunpowder smoke. The recruit runs to the attack, one shot and he is already dead. But the focus of the camera is not the dead soldier – he is immediately absorbed by the common grave – but the soldier’s uniform. The body of the dead is shaken out of it, the uniform falls into a bloody bale, the wagons stuffed with bales are sent to the rear, the uniform is boiled in a vat, and then the hands of a young seamstress are darned in a huge workshop, before the ironed set, which has already served one dead man, is handed over by the draft board to the main character of the film – Paul Beumer (Felix Kammerer). He has just graduated from high school and, together with four friends, volunteers to go to the front.

All Quiet on the Western Front was first published piecemeal in 1928 in the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung, before being published as a separate book in January 1929: the owners of the Ullstein publishing house, which still exists today, prepared the public in this way, fearing that no one will not want to read a novel about the war by an unknown author. In the first three months, 500,000 copies of the novel were sold in the Weimar Republic. Today, All Quiet on the Western Front has been translated into 53 languages, with a total circulation of up to 40 million copies.

That is why it is so surprising that the film, shot by German director Edvard Berger with the support of Netflix, is only the third film adaptation of the novel in 94 years and the first in German. The most famous film adaptation to this day came out a year after its publication – in 1930, the black-and-white picture of Lewis Milestone (a native of Chisinau, Leib Milstein, who made silent films and reached Hollywood heights) won the Academy Award for Best Film and Best Director . The film was banned from showing in Germany by the National Socialists who came to power, and the novel itself, along with other “anti-German” books – Freud, Marx, the Mann brothers and many others – in 1933 exponentially burned on Bebelplatz, in front of the Opera House in Berlin.

The next attempt to transfer Remarque to film occurred almost 50 years later: in 1979, Delbert Mann made a TV movie for the American CBS. And finally, a new film adaptation has been released – in a hybrid format, created simultaneously for viewing in the cinema and at home. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, its European premiere at the Zurich Film Festival, it has been in German box office since the end of September and launched on Netflix on October 28.

First edition of All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front premiered in New York, 1930
Nazis burning books in Berlin in May 1933

Edward Berger’s film is Netflix’s most expensive German co-production to date, having already been nominated by Germany for the Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination in 2023. The main character, yesterday’s schoolboy Paul Bäumer, is played by the Austrian Felix Kammerer, a theater actor from Vienna. He is 27, and this is his first big film role – after a long search, Berger chose him for the main role “for an outdated face”, which seems to belong to a different era. The script was written in English and translated into German; Ian Stockell is a former Washington Post journalist and sports coaching author, while Leslie Paterson is a Scottish triathlon champion.

The new on-screen incarnation undoubtedly conveys the spirit of the novel – as a book is read in one gulp, and in almost two and a half hours you will hardly have time to look at your watch. Compared to previous adaptations, Berger handles the material much more freely – in the series there is neither the drill of the exercises described in the text, nor the protagonist’s vacation at home, nor his long stay in the infirmary.

“On the Western Front” is a meat grinder where earth, iron and human bodies are mixed into a homogeneous mass, this is how Remarque describes the war. In this sense, the film is faithful to the novel and at the same time is related to Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” in an effort to show the inhumanity and horror of war. It cannot be compared, for example, with “1917” by Sam Mendes, filmed about the same events from the other side of the front – the British mission at Mendes is more like the adventures of Indiana Jones, which cannot be said about Berger’s film.

about “1917”

Comparisons – both with “1917”, and with “Dunkirk” by Christopher Nolan – cannot be avoided, because visually “On the Western Front” is a Hollywood movie of a new type, combining scale, cinematography and emotionality. Edward Berger has been working with American streaming platforms for a long time: he directed a series based on Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror, several seasons of Patrick Melrose and Your Honor with Bryan Cranston, and on the last two projects he worked with cinematographer James Friend.

It is through Friend’s chamber that we see smoking trenches, sheaves of barbed wire and earthen craters from exploding shells with brown soup from fragments of human bodies. The naturalism of the German picture surpasses all conceivable horrors of war that can be shown on the big and small screen. Berger, Friend and the screenwriters stepped where Mendes was afraid or did not want to step – into the darkness.

But Berger’s film is not forced to compete with many other films about the war. The real war is off screen, and that changes everything irreversibly. Are the audience ready to give their spiritual strength and feelings (and after all, a movie, like a dream, loads into itself) to tears and pain played on camera, when unplayed, ugly, awkward testimonies of the real wars?

Berger, Kammerer and other actors openly say that the result of their work echoes the war in Ukraine, emphasizing that their film is anti-war. Carefully choosing his wording, Berger says in an interview that he agreed to sit in the director’s chair to show historical events from the German side. Germany, he says, was, in fact, the only country in the 20th century that splashed out its own self-destructive impulses into the outside world. And although this is a controversial statement, its meaning is clear: empathy for a German soldier is still a new feeling for viewers outside of Germany.

François Truffaut in an interview with film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune saidthat any anti-war film eventually becomes pro-war, citing the example of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory – also about the trenches of the First World War. The space of war in the new adaptation of Remarque is the territory of male pain, male friendship and male death. It is much more uniform than the text of a young veteran writer, showing both French women going on a date with the Germans for a loaf of bread and a piece of liver sausage, and nuns in the infirmary swaddling and lifting the heavy bodies of the wounded, and mothers of soldiers.

The events in Ukraine, thousands of documentary evidence speak of the opposite: war is not only a “cure for wrinkles” for the young, it sucks everyone. It is in the light – although it would be more correct to say “in the darkness” – of the war in Ukraine that the focus on one soldier’s grief and soldier’s death makes Berger’s film somewhat anachronistic, when other actors outside the front are eliminated.

Here Paul and Kat playfully steal a goose from a French farm near the front lines – a foray into normality, the euphoria of which is designed to shield the soldiers from starvation and death. Will we ever see a film about the doubts, struggles, suffering and death of a Russian soldier in the war that began on February 24? Scenes in which colleagues pull washing machines out of Ukrainian homes? These questions may sound like Jesuits, but they come to mind while watching.

Remarque describes the horrors of war, but at the same time creates its myth, a war in which true male brotherhood is possible – with a collective trip to the toilet and noble painful suffering. Remarque’s heroes do not question the existence of soldiers’ brothels, homosexual relations among prisoners, the belonging of the belligerents to different social strata – but the novel deals with these topics in a dotted line, but the film does not.

There is another significant difference from the book in it: the new script added new heroes to the action – those who wage this war not in the trenches, but in the offices, bending over the cards. German politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), who lost his son in the war, is trying to conclude a truce as soon as possible in order to stop the senseless death of soldiers – with the entry of the Americans into the war, the Reich is doomed to defeat. Silver cutlery, poached eggs and snow-white tablecloths of the train carriage, which Erzberger rides to the Compiègne forest to meet with General Foch (Thibaut de Montalembert), only emphasizes the various shades of dirt that cover the bodies of living and dead soldiers. General Friedrichs (David Strizov), under whose command Paul Bäumer and his classmates are fighting, sits in the bombed out town hall and also eats with silver cutlery on white tablecloths, he believes that the truce is shameful cowardice and must be fought to the last. He (and people like him) do not think of themselves outside the battlefield: what would a soldier be like without a war?

This addition, albeit rather stereotyped (indifferent to other people’s deaths, the idol Friedrichs and sensitive, remembering the deceased son Erzberger) addition is a great success of the film, something that many films about the war are so lacking in general. We usually see the bloody dish, but we never see the chef.

“How senseless everything that is written, done and rethought by people, if such things are possible in the world! To what extent our civilization is false and worthless, if it could not prevent these flows of blood ”- the narrator will utter this phrase in the infirmary. Perhaps anti-war films should be shot in the unsightly scenery of hospitals – what if this affects the mobilizers and the mobilized more soberingly than scenes with a beautiful death from a bayonet?

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J. A. Allen

Author, blogger, freelance writer. Hater of spiders. Drinker of wine. Mother of hellions.

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