There is often trepidation when a classic film is remade. Will it measure up to the original? Will it do enough on its own to make it stand out? Is it necessary to have ANOTHER one of these? Sometimes things work out, as it did with Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story just last year. Sometimes, however, you get Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, and it just keeps the argument against remakes perpetual.
Erich Maria Remarque’s best-selling novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a timeless and international antiwar classic. As is the 1930 Best Picture-winning film adapted from his story. In the first German film adaptation, Edward Berger’s version of the time-honored tale lives up to its predecessors in a big, big way.
Young Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is a 17-year-old German student whose ideas of war have been romanticized by the fervor of teachers and persons of influence around him. They sing of the glory and honor of battle and the spoils laid upon its victors in a way that makes the thought of missing out on the “Great War” unthinkable. In the final years of World War I, Paul and his small group of friends arrive at the borders of France and Belgium on the west end of the German front. It doesn’t take long for the horrors of war to be unmasked. All Quiet on the Western Front pulls back the curtain to expose the carnage as it was truly experienced. The meaningless and barbaric waste of human lives becomes Paul’s nightmarish hell. He becomes disillusioned by the expendability of the young soldiers around him and begins to lose friends to catastrophic new technology. Machine guns, tanks, flame throwers, shell bombardments, and poisonous gases were first introduced in World War I, while gruesome methods of killing – bayonets and hand-to-hand combat – were still prevalent in trench warfare. The mangled bodies of astute young men whose country led them to early, unmarked, and shallow graves litter the battlefield.
All Quiet on the Western Front presents a scathing depiction of the mental terror of war unlike any film or novel that came before it. The emotional disconnection that consumes the soldiers has an extremely destructive impact on Paul and his comrades. Along with the intense psychological anguish, the story depicts the physical brutality brought on by their impoverished surroundings at camp. Infested with disease-carrying vermin, minimal provisions, and the constant threat of death, no soldier remained unscathed. Whether physically or psychologically debilitated, the aftermath of the war left an entire generation of men destroyed.
What I have always loved most about All Quiet on the Western Front – the 1930 version is the oldest entry in my personal Top 100 Films of All Time list – is the fact that the story is told from the American enemy’s point of view. We live vicariously in this barbarous war through the eyes of our adversary, who doesn’t seem to be that much different than us. Paul yearns to be with friends, chase girls, and dreams of a future where he returns a hero. He faces the same ghastly and traumatic experiences that any of us would and allows us to live in his shoes. We root for him to steal the goose from the farm so that he and his platoon can eat. We feel empathy for him as his friends are slain one by one. We hope for his survival. This component of the film allows a thin layer of humanity to exist and makes the savage atrocities of combat all the more bloodcurdling.
The landscapes present a somber critique of war that are captured perfectly by cinematographer James Friend. From the vast scope of no man’s land to tight, intimate closeups of the soldiers sent to die, Friend’s aesthetically striking imagery is among the best we will see this year. Kammerer’s debut performance is extraordinary, as he must sell the audience on the emotional toll the war takes from his benevolent humanity. Berger’s vision and decision-making is astounding. His rendition of the story includes real-life figures and events, like Matthias Erzeberger’s (Daniel Brühl) work to help Germany come to a peace-establishing agreement with France, an armistice that would be refuted by a warmongering general and later cost Erzeberger his life. The fierce battle sequences are a grim and powerful experience, expertly crafted to depict the vivid chaos of the front line.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a jaw-dropping film and a remarkable piece of work. It is not only one of the best films of the year but should also be remembered as one of the greatest war films of all time. Erich Maria Remarque would undoubtedly admire Berger’s graphic take on his lesson in history, hoping against all hopes that one day we will no longer be destined to repeat it.
All Quiet on the Western Front is Germany’s official entry for Best International Film. It is playing in theaters in a limited release and will be available on Netflix on October 28.