“War is Hell”. A quote pretty much everyone can agree with…well, everyone except the storytellers. Now, I refrain from saying Hollywood there and went with storytellers because the glorification of war goes way back before the silver screen, it goes back to the first fight I’m sure. There’s always been something about war, and I’m sure it has something to do with our DNA coded need to survive and reproduce, that has prompted people who haven’t been there to be in awe about what tales of honor and heroism were made. All while those that have been there know the truth is much less a tale you want to retell. This is where All Quiet on the Western Front sets itself apart. You won’t find any Michael Bay flyovers, or famous generals giving inspirational speeches in front of star spangled banners, just the worst of what humanity has to offer.
Set in the less popular for movie plots “Great War” of World War I All Quiet on the Western Front follows one young soldier, Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) from the halls of his high school to the trenches of the war. The story is one of such haunting depressing truth that it can be hard to watch. The truth is, you can really get the message the film is trying to deliver before Paul is even introduced to audiences. The film opens on the soldiers huddled in the trenches and follows one young hero as he races across only to be cut down, dying where he falls. He lies there until his comrades finally arrive, not to respectfully handle his body back home, but to strip it of his boots and uniform and then toss him in a pile of other poor bastards. His boots and uniform though are rushed back to be patched and cleaned before being handed off to another young recruit, Paul Baumer. It is a really REALLY powerful sequence that matches with the opening of Lord of War in creativity and Saving Private Ryan in impact.
The cast, mostly German actors (something the original film didn’t bother with), are mostly unknown to American audiences but are stellar nonetheless. Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Bastards, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) is the primary face you’ll recognize and as good as he is (and he always is) his castmates either hold their own or exceed his contributions. Felix Kammerer especially, this young kid has this entire movie on his shoulders and carries it through without breaking a sweat. His ability to nail the “1000 yard stare” that soldiers returning from the front lines are known for takes the already palpable realism of what you’re watching and just nails it home.
The films director, Edward Berger, will likely get and fully deserves an Oscar nomination. The way the film is crafted to show the deterioration of youthful patriotism and optimism to depression and hopelessness is masterful. I’m still stunned that I want to watch this film again, possibly the biggest testament to Berger craft given the dour nature of the whole thing. But no, that’s not what will win him the Oscar…it’s his restraint. All too often war is depicted as a never-ending orchestra of bangs and booms, fighting and running, but the truth is far more boring. Long spells of boredom interrupted by short bursts of hell is probably how I’ve heard it described best. Berger’s ability to really display this piece highlights the most terrifying aspect of those in the trenches, the waiting. Not just waiting but waiting knowing that at literally any second you or your friend could be blown to pieces by a well placed mortar.
All Quiet on the Western Front is far from a “Fun” film but it is most definitely a film that everyone needs to see. I have to imagine this iteration hits home the point of Erich maria Remarque’s classic novel more then any of its predecessors. I loved this film while hating it’s contents, hating the truth that came through about what we as a people so often applaud. The best review I can give of this film is to say that any member of government with the ability to make war or vote to make war should have to watch this film with their families superimposed before making their decision.
All Quiet on the Western Front is streaming now on Netflix.