Edward Berger’s German version of Im Westen nichts Neues or All Quiet on the Western Front is great in its brutality. It also inadvertently points to the other American adaptations of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel. It’s been a while since I saw the 1930 version. The only thing I remember from it is 17 year old Paul Baumer’s (Lew Ayres) when, not a spoiler here, he returns to his hometown. Returning, he expresses his disgust as he sees the military recruit kids younger than he is now. I only saw the one clip of the 1979 version where Ernest Borgnine plays himself as Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky.
I don’t read, but this 2022 German version of All Quiet on the Western Front seems like a more faithful adaptation because in many aspects, it’s brutal and novelistic. Also, I remember the 1930 version covering a longer period of time. Meanwhile, this one just covers WWI’s last 18 months. It also captures the same theatre of the war in two ways. The first is the trenches where Paul (Felix Kammerer) and his fellow schoolboys turn into soldiers. There they also meet their mentor Kat (Albrecht Schuch). This version, unlike Borgnine’s jolly mentor, exudes a lot of complex qualities. Also, unlike Borgnine, Schuch is just two years older than me. And I have many feelings about someone almost my age playing someone ‘old’.
The crew made All Quiet on the Western Front and ended up with two and a half hours, and the characterization comes in impressionistic flashes. The film roots for its major characters to live. But they grace the screen as if the experience of knowing them is fleeting. I almost forgot about the the second layer of the Western front, which focuses on the person responsible for Paul and Kat. That person is Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl, Best German Ever, also the film’s executive producer). He negotiates an armistice with the French while having to deal with changing governments. He also does his work despite the lack of respect from a bellicose General Friedrich (including Devid Striesow).
As Erzberger pleads to the French who want to see the Germans bleed, the people in the trenches do exactly that. It’s probably a cliché to say that war films expose man’s basest instincts. But at least All Quiet on the Western Front shows a variety of those instincts. Kat and Paul’s fellow student turned soldier Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanović) jump on another set of French trenches. Down there, they shoot at anyone on sight. After that, they have a snack break and eat what looks like bites of bread and cheese before the French the blow torches and tanks arrive.
All Quiet on the Western Front, as it should, shows that war is hell without overdoing it. But I keep returning to the Erzberger scenes. This is mostly because the violence on the front lines has a quieter echo during his scenes. Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell’s screenplay handles both kind of scenes like balancing acts, as they’re careful not to villainize the French. The confrontations we see here capture a generation’s cynicism and radicalism, both relevant then as they are now. The music excellently jolts those ideas in the now, and the main cast’s performance exude the exhaustion it must feel to be on the receiving end of a thousand shocks.
Torontonians can watch All Quiet on the Western Front at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The film then comes to Netflix on October 28.
- Rated: R
- Genre: Foreign, History, Literary, War
- Release Date: 10/15/2022
- Directed by: Edward Berger
- Starring: Albrecht Schuch, Daniel Bruhl, Felix Kammerer
- Produced by: Daniel Bruhl, Daniel Marc Dreifuss, esley Paterson, Ian Stokell, Malte Grunert
- Written by: esley Paterson, Ian Stokell
- Studio: Amusement Park Films, RocketScience