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In 1917, a naive 17-year-old German is sent to the western front.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Edward Berger

Starring: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Edin Hasanovic, Adrian Grünewald, Thibault De Montalembert, Daniel Brühl, Devid Striesow

All Quiet on the Western Front poster

The German film industry has famously shied away from producing films about the two great 20th century conflicts the country initiated, so it's a surprise to find such a large scale adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front coming from Germany. Of course, Remarque's story is considered the greatest anti-war text of all time, but as Truffaut famously put it, "There’s no such thing as an anti-war film." What Truffaut meant was that whatever the intentions of the filmmaker, narrative cinema will inevitably put us in a position where we have to take a side. He was also referring to the exhilaration we experience watching battle scenes, no matter how bloody and realistic.

I was never quite sure if I agreed with Truffaut until I watched director Edward Berger's new take on the Remarque story. Everything Truffaut warned of is present here. Yes, it's an unreservedly anti-war film, but it's one that puts us in the position of rooting for a protagonist who is an instrument of war, and with action scenes that wipe the floor with anything to come out of Hollywood in recent times, it's at times an awe-inspiring depiction of conflict.

All Quiet on the Western Front review

In an opening that recalls the life of a bullet sequence that opened Lord of War, we watch as a coat is taken from a dead German soldier on the frontline, sent back to Germany where it is cleaned and restitched before it's recycled and presented to our protagonist, Paul Baumer.

The naive 17-year-old German who finds himself sent to the titular battlefield is played by newcomer Felix Kammerer in a quietly devastating performance. Goaded by his friends, Paul enlists and, after a rousing speech from a group of old men, he and his mates are packed off to France with patriotic dreams of conquering Paris, screaming and fist-pumping like football hooligans on an away day.

Any romantic notions of marching down the Champs-Élysées are quickly dispelled when the young men find themselves stuck in a muddy, rodent-infested trench. Taken under the wing of an older soldier, Kat (Albrecht Schuch), Paul learns the ropes of how best to survive, watching as his friends fall around him. There are moments of calm, in which Paul and Kat raid the hen houses of local farmers and receive letters from home, contrasted with battles that usually begin with rumbling bass, like the entrance of a T-Rex in a Jurassic Park movie.

All Quiet on the Western Front review

That's not the only reference to blockbuster cinema. The movie's standout sequence, an assault on the trench by French tanks, is clearly inspired by the attack on Hoth sequence from The Empire Strikes Back. Negotiations in a lavish train carriage are straight out of Once Upon a Time in the WestVolker Bertelmann's sparse score is centred on a loud horn that recalls the sound of the invading aliens in Spielberg's War of the Worlds. The emaciated landscape has the look of a post-apocalyptic zombie movie.

It's perhaps the latter influence that is most prevalent. From zombie movies Berger takes the idea that no matter how battle-hardened you become, at some point you'll let your guard down - there's one particular death that is truly heart-breaking in how avoidable it could have been. Paul is something of a zombie himself. We watch as he goes from bright-eyed enthusiasm to a sleepwalking weapon of war, and by the end of the film his mud-caked face resembles that of the undead antagonists of a Fulci film (the fog-shrouded frontline also has the appearance of the depiction of Hell from Fulci's The Beyond).

All Quiet on the Western Front review

War has rarely been depicted as so hellish, but in sequences like the aforementioned nod to Star Wars, it's undeniably exciting. In the middle of this immaculately constructed set-piece it suddenly occurred to me that the film had coerced me into rooting for the Germans. This is down to how the film embeds us with Paul, who may shed his patriotism early on but is a tool of German aggression regardless. We want this young man to survive, which means we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of rooting for him as he kills French soldiers who are equally young and naive. At one point Paul tries to quietly choke a French soldier so as not to have his location compromised. It's as gruelling a depiction of the difficulty of committing murder as the infamous farmhouse sequence from Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, yet we want Paul to kill this man. It's only later, as the man is dying and Paul has an attack of remorse, that we realise how the film has manipulated us. At first I found this problematic, but having mulled over it since my viewing I've come to realise it's actually a feature not a flaw, a brilliant way of making us understand how and why young men and Paul end up committing mass murder in the name of patriotism. What I still find problematic however is how the film paints the French as one-note villains and shows them inflicting the sort of cruelty (in one horrific sequence, surrendering Germans are burnt alive) we never see from the Germans.

Berger has departed from the original novel in two key ways. One is by excising the section where Paul gets to go home on leave. This means the film is a lot less didactic than previous versions, as we never see any explicit discussions of the morality of the war. The second departure is in a second timeline focussed on the peace negotiations at the war's climax. This often feels a little heavy-handed, crudely juxtaposing the starving men in the trenches with generals and politicians feasting on fine food and slurping wine, and Berger employs hindsight unavailable to Remarque by suggesting that Germany's surrender would give rise to Hitler. The two timelines collide in a climax that's a little too far-fetched, but one which certainly underlines the film's message of the manipulation of young men by their power-hungry elders.

All Quiet on the Western Front is on Netflix now.

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