It’s an Oscar favourite, but does this harrowing war film deserve the hype?

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★½
(MA) 147 minutes

This new adaptation of a classic book about young German soldiers in the First World War does everything well, except keep faith with Erich Maria Remarque’s novel.

The book has been adapted three times. The first version by Lewis Milestone won the Oscar for best picture in 1931 and has earned its place as one of the greatest depictions of war on film. Hitler hated it and sent Goebbels to disrupt its screenings in Berlin with white mice and stink bombs. It’s now almost forgotten that the film was banned in Victoria from 1930 to 1941 on the grounds of pacifism. In these same years, Remarque fled the Nazis for the US.

Felix Kammerer delivers an uncanny performance as soldier Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front.Credit:Reiner Bajo/Netflix

Pacifism is an interesting accusation. At the start of the novel, Remarque wrote that it was “neither accusation nor confession – simply an attempt to give an account of the generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling”. Both the left and right attacked it for being too anti-war, too pro-war, too disrespectful to the glorious dead. It pleased no one who had a hand in waging war, but the people loved it. The first run sold 2 million copies.

This is the first film version by a German director, which seems significant given that it’s a book about Germans. If you’ve never read the book, it might be enough that Edward Berger has delivered a powerful anti-war film, with all the horror, bitterness and sorrow that Remarque’s story requires. In fact, he has done more. He adds stuff that Remarque never wrote, to bring the film into line with modern expectations. In that, Berger fatally damages his own work. His changes make clear that he doesn’t understand the book, nor care for its subtleties.

Milestone’s version is famous for the reality and horror of its battle scenes. They were part of Steven Spielberg’s inspiration for the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. The battles here are just as harrowing: full of confusion, terror and deadly luck. Paul Baumer and his schoolboy comrades go straight into battle when they arrive in northern France in 1917. Most of them have overstated their age, encouraged by war-mongering schoolmasters banging on about the fatherland.

Harrowing: All Quiet on the Western Front’s battle scenes are full of confusion and terror.Credit:Netflix

They receive no orientation, no easing in through a quiet sector, no clues about how to stay alive. One of Paul’s officers tells him he will be dead before dawn. In fact, Paul (an uncanny performance from Felix Kammerer) survives nearly two years.

In late 1918, at German high command, they realise the war is lost. They must sue for peace. By then, most of Paul’s friends are dead. Those who are left are crazed and half-starved. What keeps Paul going is his friendship with an older comrade, Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch). ‘Kat’ keeps them both alive with his wily food scrounging and his humour and wisdom.

Meanwhile, in a luxurious train carriage at Compiègne, the Germans and French argue terms. Politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl), who was a real person, leads the reluctant German delegation. In a nearby chateau, General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), commanding Baumer’s unit, plans one last charge – to show the lily-livered Social Democrats back home what real soldiers can do. Friedrichs is fictional.

The peace train debates and the mad Prussian general are not from the novel. These are additions for a modern audience. They dilute the laconic beauty of Remarque’s story, especially when one of the main characters dies in that last pointless charge. In the book, this character dies in October 1918, a few weeks before the signing of the Armistice. Remarque says it happened “on a day so still and quiet … that the army despatches restricted themselves to the single sentence: that there was nothing new to report on the western front”.

There, in that sentence, is the whole blood-soaked pitiless tragedy of the war. Berger thinks we need something more, so he stages that stupid charge in the last five minutes of the war, forfeiting the rueful bitterness of the title. It’s far from quiet in the movie’s finale. Remarque’s elegiac ending becomes a cheap cliff-hanger climax for a jaundiced audience – a more “entertaining” conclusion, so to speak. Irony, reflection, the sense of waste – goodbye to all that.

All Quiet on the Western Front is now streaming on Netflix.

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