All Quiet on the Western Front: the horror, the horror

Coming 92 years after the Oscar-winning Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal novel, this German take on the source material is full of intelligent references and inversions that expand on Remarque’s humanist plea.

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)Reiner Bajo

War is not only Hell, it’s a wash cycle of death. This is the idea posited by the opening of Edward Berger’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal, and later Nazi-banned, 1928 novel of the same name. Fighting in the First World War, a terrified young soldier named Heinrich Gerber is forced over the top and, inevitably, instantly killed. Rather than focus on the dead boy, however, the film methodically tracks the uniform stripped from his corpse: his blood-soaked shirt boiled clean, his bullet-ripped coat sewn up. This coat, neatly pressed and folded, is later presented to wide-eyed teenage recruit Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) as he enlists with several equally eager classmates. When Bäumer, on noticing Gerber’s nametag still inside the collar, asks if the uniform belongs to someone else, the superior officer casually removes it. “It was too small for him,” he says blithely. “Happens all the time.” Rinse. Repeat.

Coming almost a century after All Quiet on the Western Front’s publication and Hollywood’s rapidly produced, Oscar-winning 1930 adaptation, Berger’s film – the first German screen version – is in fascinating dialogue with not just its source material, but the long history of warfare and cinema about war and atrocities. A stockpile of dead soldiers’ boots echoes the chilling image of mountains of shoes outside Nazi gas chambers in Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956). The propaganda-peddling teachers exhorting students to sign up laud these naïve youngsters as “the greatest generation”, a term now practically copyrighted by Americans who push a narrative of righteous World War Two service. Such inversions are smart and telling.

Invented scenes like the opening, and the ongoing parallel negotiation of German surrender between Daniel Brühl’s war-weary official and intransigent French generals, complement and expand Remarque’s humanist plea. Often, though, it’s at the expense of the book’s detailed relationships and heartbreaking musings between Paul and his ill-fated friends. Berger also can’t help but follow familiar technical and aesthetic choices from multiple combat epics from the past 25 years: 1917’s extended-take, Steadicam showmanship; Saving Private Ryan’s shellshocked disorientation through audio dropout; Black Hawk Down’s blood squibs spattering the camera lens, and more. Not that this powerful film offers – to paraphrase the novel’s original title, Im Westen Nicht Neues – nothing new; Volker Bertelmann weaves synths into his imaginative score, and James Friend composes steely-hued tableaux that are starkly beautiful, even if they sometimes risk aestheticising the tragedy. Moreover, on a continent once again witnessing young men sacrificed on the whims of their vainglorious commanders, it’s a salutary, visceral reminder. The horror, the horror.

► All Quiet on the Western Front is available to view on Netflix now.