All Quiet On The Western Front – New Netflix adaptation highlights brutal lesson we failed to learn

Felix Kammerer and Albrecht Schuch in All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
Felix Kammerer and Albrecht Schuch in All Quiet on the Western Front (2022). © Netflix 2022 / Reiner Bajo.

On Thursday (28 October 2022) Netflix releases Edward Berger’s adaptation of the classic anti-war opus All Quiet on the Western Front. Written by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929, the book is a masterwork about the futility and insanity of war, which we as a species are yet to heed.

Almost a century on from publication, the same stupid race to conflict, powered by vanity and bureaucratic detachment from consequences can be seen repeated. In Ukraine, Vladimir Putin sends newly-conscripted Russian men into a senseless modern war with little training, inadequate equipment and minimal understanding of why they are there. There are parallels with the opening scenes of this adaptation in which the human cost of that same cycle of recruitment and replacement is brutally exposed.

It is Spring 1917 on the Western Front and the Great War is in its third year. Heinrich Gerber is one of the hundreds of German soldiers ordered from the trenches to attack. He falls on the battlefield. Before his body is buried in a mass grave, his boots and uniform are removed. The uniform is brought back to Germany where it is washed, dried, processed and patched – ready for the next young soldiers who will be sent to the front. So begins the story.

A story with contemporary sensitivity

"All Quiet on the Western Front" Poster
“All Quiet on the Western Front” directed by Lewis Milestone in 1930.

All Quiet On The Western Front has been adapted before, first in Lewis Milestone’s excellent 1930 version and later as an insipid TV movie directed by Delbert Mann but it has never before been told with the German perspective of war.

This is a point Berger is quick to acknowledge as one of the main drivers for his interest in the project; “I wanted to make a movie that wasn’t preachy or sentimental. Any director who seriously addresses the topic of war will probably always have the noble intention of making a movie that speaks out against war,” he says.

“I thought, ‘What a great opportunity!’ Of course, firstly, because the book is world-famous. But above all, I have always had the sense that (as a German) one feeling will be with us for our whole lifetimes: the feeling of being heir to two wars. In most cases, American or British war movies cannot help but find a positive side in their stories.”

“Travelling on the tube in London in November, I see people wearing poppies in remembrance of the ceasefire. The soldiers returned home after the war and were celebrated as heroes in Trafalgar Square. We’re familiar with similar images from America, in Times Square where people fell into each other’s arms. America was dragged into the war against its will and freed Europe from fascism. That does something to a country’s psyche. War is automatically associated with heroism.

“Of course, it was also horrifying and resulted in terrible losses for these countries, no doubt. But it was an experience with a successful outcome and these days, when an American or British director portrays war in a movie, this feeling sort of permeates on its own accord. Contrary to this, it was important to me to take on the German perspective. It’s a perspective which no longer exists in modern war movies because we usually lack the courage and the opportunities to show it.

“Our (the German) view of war is marked by grief and shame, sorrow and death, destruction and guilt. There is nothing positive or heroic. Every death, regardless of which side, is a death and is therefore simply horrific. It’s a person who died. I felt that making our history, background and attitude towards war the driving force behind the movie was a huge and fascinating challenge.”

Felix Kammerer and Albrecht Schuch in All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
Felix Kammerer and Albrecht Schuch in All Quiet on the Western Front (2022). Image: Reiner Bajo – © Netflix 2022

The sad testament of youth

The recipient of the late Heinrich’s now bullet-hole-patched uniform Paul Bäumer (played by fresh-faced newcomer Felix Kammerer) a 17-year-old high-school student. Like his friends, he’s extremely eager to go to war, to beat the French soundly for Emperor, God and Fatherland.

For those familiar with the book, the enthusiasm predictably does not last long as they are introduced to the mud and blood of trench life and the bone-jarring terror of artillery bombardments. Unlike previous adaptations, most of the drama occurs in and around the Front and is focused on how Paul and his comrades cope with the death of friends and the ever-present danger of their mortality.

Berger, with screenplay writers Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson, has created an immersive and relentlessly harsh vision of life in the trenches that is faithful to Remarque but uniquely modern.

“Kubrick once said, ‘If you can write it or think it, you can also film it,’ offers Berger. “I realised that at some point, not so long ago, and since then I’ve had the feeling that I can work much more freely. I can write without scissors in my head, without worries about how to implement something later or whether I will be able to afford it at all.”

The result is a brilliant and painful reminder that war is not glorious, it is an instrument of destruction and pain longed for only by those who stand to lose the least.

All Quiet On the Western Front

Available on Netflix from 28 October and also on limited cinema release in the UK.

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Image: © Netflix 2022 / Reiner Bajo.

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