Directed by Edward Berger — Screenplay by Ian Stokell, Lesley Paterson, and Edward Berger.
Can a war film ever truly be anti-war? A lot has been said on the topic over the years, with François Truffaut often being attributed to the quote that “there is no such thing as an anti-war film,” and Steven Spielberg reportedly disagreeing completely in an interview with Newsweek in which he stated that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie.” With respect, I think both of their black-and-white absolute statements miss the mark. Certainly, there are war films that aren’t explicitly anti-war in case they showcase heroism or glorify the act of fighting for one’s country. Some would definitely argue that Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan fell prey to some of these war movie pitfalls. On the other hand, I also think the Truffaut quote is a strange generalization. Actually, with All Quiet on the Western Front (2022), I think Edward Berger has done an excellent job of recreating the hell of World War One in a way that knocks you out, shakes you up, and sends waves through you.
If you think you’ve heard the title before, then you thought right. This is the first German-language and German-made adaptation of the highly influential Erich Maria Remarque novel Im Westen nichts Neues (also the original title of the film), which was adapted into an American Oscar-winning (winning the top prize) film from Lewis Milestone in 1930. Copies of the book were burned and banned by the Nazi Party due to the book’s anti-war and anti-nationalist themes. So it speaks volumes that we now finally have a German adaptation of this iconic novel, and, while I can’t speak to the novel or the 1930s film as I haven’t read or seen them, it should be said that it doesn’t seem to soften those themes. Berger’s film is a harrowing depiction of the futility of war and the blind belief in nationalist propaganda that led a generation into a no-win scenario.
The film follows the wartime experiences of the young German Paul Bäumer (played by Felix Kammerer), who, along with his friends, enlists in the German army in spite of what his parents think. Convinced by propaganda and nationalist rhetoric, as well as the hope that he, like generations before him, could have a heroic war experience, Paul has signed up for what will be known as World War One, and Paul has no idea what he has actually signed up for. Meanwhile, we see how Matthias Erzberger (played by Daniel Brühl), a diplomat and representative of Germany, tries to negotiate a ceasefire.
There is no shortage of war films, or even World War One films, to compare it to, but, in recent memory, the two war films that general audiences will be the most familiar with are Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s time-focused World War Two film, and 1917, Sam Mendes’ World War One epic built around a continuous shot technique. Both Nolan and Mendes’ films are technical achievements of the highest order as they depict a relatively realistic interpretation of the wars that they have focused on. To a certain extent, I think it is fair to say that Berger’s film matches it visually, but he does so without any gimmicks or Hollywood sensationalism. He doesn’t bend time like Nolan or build the entire film around the one-take look. For what it’s worth, I think both of those films are near-masterpieces and I like what their gimmicks and structures do for the films, but Berger’s film feels more honest and raw. This comes down to the handheld chaos but also to the aimlessness of the main characters’ journeys. There isn’t a central mission other than to try to move the frontline. You’re also not waiting for the cavalry you know will save the day. Rather you’re watching propaganda fool young men into lining up for a slaughterhouse while the higher-ups are calling the shots — the ‘fat pigs’ as one soldier calls them — from the comfort of castles and trains while debating when they’ll drop the sunk cost tactic and just capitulate, while generals disregard its diplomats’ suggestions and calls for a ceasefire.
Even in the moments of calm and quiet where the camaraderie of the soldiers is on focus, there is a strong taste of bitterness and a pay-off that sends you to your knees. This is a very bleak and uncompromising film. This film doesn’t just match the recent great war films visually, I also think Volker Bertelmann’s music is absolutely outstanding. While there are softer notes here and there, it is the recurring blaring noise of his score that just sits with you, and that, along with the shots of young men willingly and joyfully signing up for war, gives you chills. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get the blaring ‘bwam-bwam-bwam‘ out of my head for quite some time.
I think Im Westen nichts Neues is at its best and most impressive when it has you sit there mouth agape watching the horror of World War One through the eyes of a teenage soldier, but the subplot involving the German diplomats — mainly represented by Daniel Brühl’s desperate character (history buffs will know exactly why he is such an important addition) — and the blindly war-hungry generals says a lot about the way no one was on the same wavelength in Germany at the time. It is an excellent subplot that tries to give us a better understanding of the kind of Germany found in the wake of the armistice. The film will primarily be remembered for the horrifying scenes of a hellish war (and the chill-inducing soundscape), but I think the main performances are excellent. You can feel Daniel Brühl’s quiet desperation. Felix Kammerer’s reactive performance captures that feeling of slowly losing hope, and were it not for his performance the film’s major moments may not have played as well, including the scenes in which he breaks down either because of a loss or regret.
Edward Berger’s chilling and uncompromisingly bleak adaptation of Remarque’s novel Im Westen nichts Neues will knock you out. It is a deeply moving and staggering anti-war film that both in an auditory manner and visually rivals the most well-made war films of the previous decade. It isn’t just one of the best films of the year. It’s also one of the best films Netflix has ever released.
9.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.