All Quiet On The Western Front


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

All Quiet On The Western Front
"It is often amongst the international Oscar contenders that one finds the year’s best films. Even after accounting for that, this is something special." | Photo: courtesy of Netflix

The third screen adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel to date, and German’s 2023 Oscar submission, Edward Berger’s film is bookended by strikingly beautiful shots of pine forested hills, with very little change between them. There is, as the German title suggests, nothing new to see here. In an earth down amongst the roots, a vixen suckles her cubs, who look scruffy and raw and well-loved like little ones of any species. She’s getting on with the core stuff of life, unconcerned by what humans inexplicably think of as more important matters.

Not so far away, a youth named Heinrich Gerber who, proportionate to his natural lifespan, is not much further along than those cubs, is making his way through a trench, hearing the order to go over the top. There follows a desperate run through no man’s land, bullets whizzing by, men falling to left and right. No matter what Heinrich does, there is no safe route out of here, no refuge at the other end. Between early 1917 and late 1918, hundreds of thousands of young men and boys would die here.

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For most of the course of the film, we follow Private Paul Bäumer (Felix Kemmerer), first seen laughing with friends in his home town, talking about signing up, saying that he doesn’t want to be the only one left behind. Little time is wasted in robbing him of that innocence when he arrives at the front. Barely trained, out of his depth as anyone would be, he survives the first few hours through sheer luck, and from then on everything is changed. He makes friends, finding warmth and understanding in the strangest of places, only to see his small group whittled away over the months in which we crawl towards the armistice. Fighting for a cause soon morphs into fighting for scraps of food, or just to avoid being killed. Small pleasures – a piece of roast goose, the scent of a French girl – become the most precious things in life. Like the foxes, he is a creature of instinct.

It is often amongst the international Oscar contenders that one finds the year’s best films. Even after accounting for that, this is something special. It may be two and a half hours long – it needs to feel lived-in, to be a film one can get lost in – but not a moment is wasted. One of the challenges of war films is the need to rely on relatively inexperienced actors, but Kammerer, in only his second film and in almost every scene, carries the emotional weight of the film like a veteran. Meanwhile, cinematographer James Friend finds exquisite beauty in the grimmest of scenes. It’s hard to believe that most of his work to date has been in television, given his confidence with this large canvas; harder to countenance that producers won’t be beating down his door after this one.

Nothing particularly new happens here. Even if you haven’t seen the previous versions, having a passing knowledge of the course of the First World War will enable you to anticipate most of what happens, but that doesn’t make the film less gripping, nor decrease its importance. The passing of time only makes it feel more tragic, and of course, the older one gets, watching such films, the more painfully aware one becomes of the desperate vulnerability of the combatants to being pushed into untenable situations by their elders.

Perspectives do change, however, and Berger makes good use of music, amongst other tools, in getting across the fact that many things familiar to us now were new to these soldiers. The appearance of tanks is chilling. The use of fire, until then rare in European combat and always a tactical choice intended to induce terror, is awful to see. It’s worth keeping in mind that this period marked the intersection between the development of brutal new military technologies and the institution of codes intended to regulate them.

As the soldiers struggle in mud sometimes stained crimson, their masters, the ones whose names history remembers, drink and dine in a train carriage lined with blue velvet. They are distinctly more alien to the troops than those in the opposite set of trenches, whom, we see briefly towards the end, struggling with a similar set of problems in slightly different uniforms. The film’s most painful moments come at times when the desperation briefly subsides and the men, always too late, are able to look at each other as fellow human beings, equally appalled at what they are doing for each other. We root for Paul as we rooted for Heinrich, simply because we know him, but it’s clear that every man here has a story and that many carry the stories of fallen comrades too.

We know this story, but we have not seen it told as well as this. When it comes to awards, All Quiet On The Western Front will be tough to beat. Don’t miss it.

Reviewed on: 28 Oct 2022
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All Quiet On The Western Front packshot
A young German soldier's terrifying experiences and distress on the western front during World War I.
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Director: Edward Berger

Writer: Lesley Paterson, Ian Stokell, based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque

Starring: Daniel Brühl, Albrecht Schuch, Sebastian Hülk, Edin Hasanovich, Anton von Lucke

Year: 2022

Runtime: 147 minutes

Country: Germany, US

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