Film still, Netflix Film still, Netflix

Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel set in the First World War continues to inspire cinematic genius, writes John Westmoreland

Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, was based on his own experience as a German soldier in the First World War. It became an international best seller that stimulated the anti-war and pacifist movements of the 1930s.

Lewis Milestone’s film of the book, released in 1930, was the first of a genre to depict the experience of war accurately from the point of view of the soldier, and to grapple with the incomprehensible, futile and barbaric hugeness of a world war.

So potent was the anti-war message of the film in the 1930s that Nazi storm troopers made it their mission to destroy it. They set off stink bombs and fire alarms in theatres, and attacked audiences leaving the cinema. Remarque fled Germany in 1933, but his sister Elfriede remained. She was arrested, tried in a “People’s Court” and beheaded in 1942 for aiding the Resistance. Even after the war both book and film remained banned in Germany and Austria.

Now Edward Berger (Director), courtesy of Netflix, has given us the first German-language adaptation. It is a broadly acclaimed masterpiece that recreates the film for a modern audience, whether knowledgeable about the events of the First World War or not.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, there are some objectors ready to launch accusations of Berger using the film to twist history to fit some sinister pro-German agenda. It may be useful to start with what Berger has added to the plot.

German propaganda?

John Anderson, reviewing the film for the Wall Street Journal, claims that Edward Berger ‘certainly puts a Teutonic tweak on history, sometimes to outrageous effect.’ Why the archaic ‘Teutonic’, we might ask. Anderson objects to Berger adding scenes ‘that are not in the book’, including the signing of the Armistice (Anderson thinks it is the Treaty of Versailles) at Compiègne, with the claim that Berger shows:

‘… the vindictive French generals … jamming their ruthless terms [of surrender] down the throats of the peace-seeking Germans led by Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl). These sequences sanctify the historical position that the onerous terms of the [Treaty of Versailles] are what led to Hitler and the Holocaust.’

Leaving aside the fairly obvious point that both Hitler and Neville Chamberlain thought, as most modern historians do, that the Treaty of Versailles led to the Third Reich and the Second World War, Anderson has seriously misunderstood why the changes have been added.

Berger has used the final weeks of the war to show the utter pointlessness of war and the despicable patriotic posturing of the German High Command that insisted on ‘fighting on’ from behind a mahogany desk. Erzberger is hated by the High Command on his own side for seeking an end to the slaughter ‘and selling off the Fatherland’. Far from being German propaganda, the message should be clear to all: war is pointless and inhuman.

The film also takes apart the myths propagated by the German generals at the end of the war. For example, the myth that claimed the German army was betrayed by ‘socialists and Jews’, who stabbed the soldiers in the back when they were on the point of victory.

That Berger prioritises this for a German audience is surely to be commended. And, therefore the additional scenes historicise the film’s plot in the spirit of the book.

Beauty amid barbarism

All Quiet on the Western Front is strangely beautiful for a film full of gore and gruesome reality. The introduction itself starts with an early morning vista of a north German forest. Vertical shots that show the morning sky through the trees, change to a drone shot of the treetops, and change again to an all but silent battlefield: brown, drab and lifeless but for the sputtering traces of a machine gun.

Sequences with very little dialogue have an unsettling quality that is enhanced by the haunting music of Volker Bertelmann. Some of the most beautiful images in the film feature dusk and dawn at the front, when it is quiet and still. A grey sky torn by the orange light from a flare is used several times. Many soldiers must have sensed the incongruity of such a beautiful moment amid the horror.

The use of contrasts in both image and dialogue is used to great effect to explore the same themes that occur in Lewis Milestone’s version. For example, the unforgiving power of the German war-machine that recycles human beings as it does the uniforms stripped from the corpses at the front, and that orders boys to face a terrifying death, is as powerfully presented as in the earlier version.

Another continuity from the 1930 version is the time spent in conversation about what sort of life they will return to when the fighting stops. There is the realisation that men who have had to fight like animals will never be the same as the boys that left home.

Felix Kammerer plays the central role of Paul Bäumer very effectively. His boyish face often speaks volumes to the audience through silence. He and his boyhood friends, Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer), Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus) and Tjaden (Edin Hasanovic) are given guidance from the corporal ‘Kat’ Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch).

Kat is the real hero of the boys. Reliable in battle, he also knows how to get food, a commodity far more important to the boys than medals. Kat and Paul’s relationship is used to explore the imminent return to civilian life. Kat, an illiterate cobbler with a wife he loves, worries whether he can ever go back to ‘normality’. “They’ll all want to know if we faced close combat. We’ll walk around like travellers from a landscape from the past.” 

Female characters are largely absent from the film. This is a departure from Milestone’s version. This time round women are seen in the background. Yet women are always there in the conversations that the boys have. The absence of women and love forms another contrast that brings home the loneliness of frightened young men at the front. A woman’s scarf brought to the camp by Franz becomes a sought-after possession, a chance to hold something warm and feminine. This is another theme that is developed better through subtle images rather than explanatory dialogue.

The end is as beautiful and tragic as the rest of the film, and is a fitting variation on the original version.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a masterpiece on many levels. My advice would be to watch it at least twice. The first time for the story, and the second for the art. It is one of the most moving films about war we will ever see.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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