A fitting war film for novel wrought with violence
As far as contemporary films set during the First World War go, Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a surprisingly sober and sombre reflection on a senselessly brutal conflict.
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel of the same name, the 2022 adaptation resists the urge to turn trench warfare into a bombastic affair, rather focusing on its protagonists’ plight on the battlefields on the Western Front.
Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is an enthusiastic 17-year recruit in the Imperial German Army, having recently signed up in a nationalistic fervour with his friends. But talk of God and honour and fatherland quickly dissipates as the grim realities of trench warfare set in. Instead, mud, hunger, rifle fire and artillery barrages become a traumatic reality check. There is no romanticism in Remarque’s original novel; nor does its film adaptation ever veer into no man’s land as a romantic territory.
The film also traces the German delegation on its way to peace talks in Compiègne Forest led by a nervous-but-resolute Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl). These sequences contrast with the brutality of the war. Bafta-nominated Brühl also co-produced the film and the producers took much care conveying the anti-war message of the novel.
But being confronted with a new film adaptation of Im Westen Nichts Neues - let alone one produced by Netflix - brings with it a certain sense of apprehension. For a dark and solemn novel on the ugliest aspects of the Great War, can the streaming giant resist bombast or the urge to make it more palatable to audiences?
There’s a clear, contemporary parallel to be drawn between All Quiet On the Western Front and another recent WW1 drama: 1917. The latter, a 2019 film directed by Sam Mendes, can’t help but harbour certain nostalgic sentiments of heroism and perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds - in this case, the reality of ‘going over the top’.
In 1917, WWI is naturally shown to have been a pointlessly bloody war waged by disconnected generals and field marshals. But crucially (although not as much to the detriment of the film as a sign of its cultural context), 1917 still can’t resist the urge to appeal to post-war, Allied-oriented hindsight. The film feels that a certain romantic heroism can be found in the trenches of WW1 against all odds, whereas All Quiet On the Western Front sees total pointlessness as the only moral of the story.
All Quiet On The Western Front relishes in the war’s (and the novel’s) muddy inhumanity, where barbed wire and tanks and flamethrowers are objects of horror only visible through the smudged lenses of a gas mask. In many ways it resembles a horror film in its depictions of intense violence and disdain for human life; as fitting an approach to the subject matter as one could hope from a big-budget Netflix production.
A litmus test for the film adaptation of Remarque’s novel is the scene in the crater, where Paul is confronted with an enemy French soldier. In the novel, Paul overwhelms him and stabs the soldier, who then takes nearly a whole day and night to die with only his killer for company. As far as the narrative goes, this marks one of Paul’s most traumatic moments in an unending series of traumatising events.
The film, in comparison, doesn’t go for the long play, instead amping up the visuals. Paul’s face is caked in mud and the Frenchman’s blood as his enemy lays dying. As in the novel, Paul recognises a fellow human with him and apologises.
All Quiet on the Western Front makes the most of the medium of film to convey the scene’s harrowing implications. The Frenchman dies within minutes, but the violence and visuals of the crater and his death are so impactful that it may as well have taken a whole day and night.
All Quiet on the Western Front, in this sense, is surprisingly dark and elaborately staged, a testament that great care was taken to adhere to the source material and its themes of pointlessness and endemic violence.
A fitting film for a novel that is as introspective as it is wrought with violence. A carefully crafted and intense war thriller, it’s not like other war films which find glimmers of humanity on the battlefield. This film is more of a horrors-of-war film, or a war-horror which doesn’t shy away from the darkest parts of real conflict.