'All Quiet on the Western Front' Is an Instant Classic with a New Perspective

Directed by Edward Berger

Starring Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Edin Hasanovic, Thibault De Montalembert, Daniel Brühl, Devid Striesow

Photo: Reiner Bajo

BY Rachel HoPublished Oct 13, 2022

In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque's novel Im Westen nichts Neues was published recounting his, and his fellow German soldiers', experience in the trenches of the Great War. A year later Hollywood, adapted the story into All Quiet on the Western Front, which won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lewis Milestone. Both novel and film are now considered not only classic works, but also necessary reading/viewing to gain even a modicum of understanding of what soldiers went through during WWI. 

Both the book and film were eventually banned in Germany, as well as other territories like Italy and Austria. With the rise of the Nazi Party and tension among European nations rising, Remarque's story was labelled as anti-war and anti-German. At the film's Berlin premiere, Joseph Goebbels reportedly went so far as to release mice and throw stink bombs into the audience in an attempt to clear the cinema. Over 90 years later, Remarque's words are being adapted by a fellow German for the first time in a raw and visceral telling.

Director Edward Berger follows the source material faithfully and tells the story of Paul Bäumer and his classmates, who are eager to join in the country's war effort with little consideration for what awaits them at the front. Their excitement is quickly dashed when they arrive, and reality sets in as Paul and his platoon are desperate to survive.

Felix Kammerer makes his feature acting debut as Paul in a solid performance, making the transformation from a naïve young man to a hardened soldier with subtlety and great effectiveness. With only minimal dialogue, the terror of Paul's experience is seen through the violent sequences and felt through Kammerer's eyes. In a particularly brutal scene where Paul and an allied soldier engage in hand-to-hand combat, the exhaustion, despair and sadness of Paul is illuminated through Kammerer's haunting portrayal. 

From the ferocious opening of the film to the meditative last few minutes, Berger is decisive and in control of the film from the macro to the micro. Switching between a blue-tinted palette for the front and warm tones used in scenes with the officers, Berger draws a strong distinction between the pawns used in war and the men moving them across the board. He captures some truly exquisite shots that acknowledge the breadth and unforgiving nature of the Western Front. Furthermore, Berger is unapologetic in his depiction of the violent tragedy of war and doesn't pull any punches when showing the merciless and barbaric physicality and weaponry used. 

The set design and makeup teams are to be greatly commended, as well. Together with cinematographer James Friend, they create eery visuals for audiences to grapple with. Alongside Volker Bertelmann's tremendous score that blends a horror-tinged composition with a hype-up electric guitar riff, All Quiet on the Western Front brings the war to audiences on every level. Collectively, Berger and his team present an unrelenting depiction of the Western Front that surpasses Milestone's (very excellent) film and rivals any classic war movie. 

What separates Berger's film from so many other war films is his punctuation of Remarque's main theme: there are no true victors in war. The definitive films of the genre have all explored the humanity and devastation behind warfare, but typically there is the notion of good prevailing over evil, albeit at a great cost. 

Especially in comparison to Milestone's adaptation, it's clear that Berger's version has had the benefit of decades of retrospective on not only WWI, but war in general. The added weight of time bleeds into the film through Berger's direction, Kammerer's performance, and also through us as an audience, as we watch in horror and sadness as boys are being sent off to fight a man's war.

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