All Quiet on the Western Front
- Director: Edward Berger
- Writer: Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell
- Starring: Felix Kammerer, Daniel Brühl, Albrecht Schuch, Moritz Klaus, Aaron Hilmer, Edin Hasanovic
War is hell. It always has been, and it always will be. Whether you’re a Spartan fighting against the Trojans, or a colonialist seeking your independence from the British, or a German slumming through the trenches in France, one thing remains constant in war: those that fight always lose. You don’t need a multi-million dollar Netflix production to tell you that. You don’t necessarily need to remake Erich Maria Remarque’s novel – a version of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1930 – either. Indeed, it’s the biggest question for director and co-writer Edward Berger: why did All Quiet on the Western Front need to be made?
After all, the film occupies the same kind of “you are there” sensibility that worked so well for Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan. For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding World War II and the entertainment it’s provided, we (as Americans, anyway) are generally less familiar with World War I and the horrors that came of it. Outside of Stanley Kubrick’s immortal Paths of Glory, how many depictions of the Great War can the average movie buff name? Berger sets out to portray the full scope of World War I down to the last detail, told largely through the eyes of a misguided young recruit, and the result is one of the best war films in recent memory.
The film’s hero is Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a wide-eyed soldier who forges his parent’s signature to join the war with his friends and bring glory to the Fatherland. Though Berger argues that Paul could perhaps be anybody, in a brilliant trick of storytelling, as he returns to the same motif throughout the film of soldiers bravely crossing No Man’s Land, straight into enemy fire. The film opens with the sequence featuring one soldier whose death literally leads to a montage of his uniform being cleaned and recycled, his name tag removed, and given to Paul. The film contains many of the hallmarks of war films, but there’s an intimacy that the script (credited to Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell) brings forth to keep it from being an exercise in misery. War is hell, but that doesn’t mean our viewing experience needs to be.
In fact, some of the film’s better scenes are the moments of reprieve between the battle sequences. One scene sees Paul’s buddy Kat (Albrecht Schuch) stealing a goose from a French farmer, and the ensuing scene shows the joys of their reprieve from battle. Scenes like this allow us to get to know Paul’s squad mates, though perhaps not as intimately as we’d hope. The same could be said for Paul, who’s largely an unknowable figure throughout the film, despite an impeccably empathetic performance from Kammerer. Berger also throws in a seemingly superfluous series of scenes involving the negotiations between the German and French brass as they resolve to end the war. Could these scenes be taken out, in favor of some added characterization for Paul? Perhaps, but Berger is clearly setting out to depict the all-encompassing futility of war and how those that didn’t put their lives on the line had no problem in doing so for others.
Of course, All Quiet on the Western Front wouldn’t land its messaging with such aplomb were it not for its stellar technical work. James Friend’s cinematography is gorgeous enough to demand a viewing in the theater, if possible. Netflix films often get flack for their flattened aesthetic, but this could easily be one of the streamer’s best looking films available. But the real surprise is the stunning makeup work, which adds literal layers to the horrors of war. This goes beyond a few blood spurts and gunpowder residue; it often feels like you’re actually witnessing a real field of bodies that have been wounded and lacerated by all manner of horrible machinery. It’s rare that Paul’s face isn’t caked in some kind of mud or unknowable substance, and it feels like it will never truly wash off.
The closest proxy to All Quiet on the Western Front is easily Saving Private Ryan, though Sam Mendes’ 1917 makes sense, at least on a technical level. Berger smartly removes Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality but retains that film’s unflinching brutality. This is a full-throated statement from all involved about mankind’s incessant desire to inflict suffering against one another.
The best war films transcend their specific conflicts and feel like they could happen at any point in history. The closing title cards of All Quiet on the Western Front reveal that, in spite of the Great War’s high body count, the territory these men fought over rarely amounted to more than a couple hundred meters. The details of World War I’s bloodshed may have been a unique turning point in human history, but the thesis remains the same: war is hell.
All Quiet on the Western Front is available now in select theaters and will be available to stream on Netflix Friday, October 28.
- The surest bet for the film is in Best International Feature. It will be Germany’s official selection and, with the backing of Netflix, will likely see a nomination here, if not a win.
- In a year with 10 Best Picture nominees, All Quiet on the Western Front could potentially find a spot, especially if certain films like White Noise or The Son don’t resonate as well with Academy voters.
- There’s been a trend in recent years of international films breaking through, notably in the Best Director category. Berger makes the film his own and while a nomination would be justified, he’ll have to get through Academy mainstays like Damien Chazelle, Sam Mendes, Spielberg, and fellow International Feature auteur Park Chan-wook.
- Adapted Screenplay is a relatively thin category this year, so perhaps there’s a way the film could break through here as well. Again, this depends on the reception to The Son and/or White Noise and/or Glass Onion.
- It’s impossible to watch All Quiet on the Western Front and not take notice of the crafts, from the aforementioned cinematography to the makeup to production design and Volker Bertelmann’s fantastic score. How many craft nominations it receives will basically come down to how hard Netflix campaigns for the film. With films like Bardo and White Noise not making much noise out of the fall film festivals, they’d be wise to make this their main horse in the race.
- If there’s one category Oscar voters love when it comes to war films, it’s the sound. Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water are likely locks, but All Quiet on the Western Front could break through as well.