Review: All Quiet On The Western Front (2022)

All Quiet On The Western Front

Trailer

10’000 yard stare

17-year-old Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) lies about his age in order to enlist in the German Army in 1917, high on glorious visions of serving his country and marching on Paris. A year-and-a-half later, after a brutal introduction to the grim reality of trench warfare, Paul struggles to survive in the dying days of the war, alongside close friend Kat (Albrecht Schuch). As German diplomats led by Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl) attempt to negotiate an armistice, Paul and his fellow soldiers are left to wonder if they can survive, and if they will be able to return home after all that they have seen and experienced.

The third effort to adapt Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel, but the first to be a German production, Edward Berger’s All Quiet On The Western Front seems part of a continued effort from Netflix to match their bargain bin style series of constant releases with a much grander, genre-defining policy of awards bait. I’m not one to complain too much, since variety is very much the spice of life, and especially not when it gives you the occasional gem like this. Big, bold, brash and beautiful in its own way, All Quiet… is a well-timed riposte to the idea of war as a means of politics, giving us a brutally searing view of how it effects the world at a very personal level.

While it deviates in many ways from the novel, 2022’s All Quiet… remains that well-worn, but still very affecting, story of youthful idealism destroyed by the reality of industrial warfare. There is nothing especially surprising or stunning by what All Quiet… showcases – while somewhat more gritty than the likes of 1917, I wouldn’t say one is more horrific than the other – but this reminder of the terrible truth of war is one that it probably does us all some good to experience every now and then. Kammerer, as Paul, gives a pitch perfect performance of teenage verve turning to deadened acceptance of misery, with one of the main through lines of the film an examination of Paul’s mood towards the end of the conflict: from that acceptance that there is no way out, to hope that an escape is near, right back to a hopeless acceptance of there being no world beyond the trenches, not one that Paul can live in any way. This sweet, amiable boy who doesn’t know how to talk to women gets turned into an animalistic killer, and the transformation is a terrible one to behold.

This is a film that brilliantly portrays the war machine that so categorised that industrial conflict that was taking place on the Western Front. The opening sequence is utterly amazing: another German soldier dies in brutal circumstances, his trench shovel embedded in a French adversary, and we follow the route of his blood-stained jacket through removal, transport, cleaning, re-sowing (where the machines sound uncannily like machine guns) and eventually as it is handed to Paul (when he sees a nametag they forgot to remove he thinks he’s been given a taken jacket: the recruiting officer says “Must have been too small for him”, and carelessly tosses the tag aside). This is the story of a generation – referred to as Germany’s “greatest” in a potent bit of wordplay presumably meant to evoke feelings of comparability in western audiences – being ground to mulch in an uncaring system. The German nature of the production in its background, creative team and story offers a very interesting viewpoint for those largely brought up on stories of heroic Allies triumphing through adversity: here are soldiers fighting a hopeless battle, in a war for a country that will be condemned for (allegedly) starting it. There’s no glory, even of a fleeting kind, to be found, no reward for bravery: just the next trench to assault, and the next counter-attack to withstand.

The key point is how war strips these men of their humanity. Survival becomes the only priority: in an eye-catching scene, German soldiers slaughter their way through an enemy trench in a kill-or-be-killed scenario, then drop what they are doing to wolf down abandoned French food and drink, showcasing an animalistic concern for needs to be gratified. In another moment, a large group of wounded Germans don’t move a muscle when one of their number commits suicide by slashing his throat, with the lone exception of one man who takes the opportunity to steal his rations and wolf them down (there’s a running visual element regards food that is worth noting actually, tying into the film’s overall theme of a survival mindset becoming pre-dominant in peoples minds).

But All Quiet… is far from a total triumph. The film pads out its running time with a recurring sub-plot involving Erzberger and the Compiegne negotiations – such as they were – with France’s Ferdinand Foch, and how it s is viewed by the generals stewing back at the front. Aside from adding some historical weight to proceedings, and serving as an always welcome justification for the actions of men like Erzberger – who would be assassinated by Germany’s far-right within a few years – the sub-plot puts an official gloss on the ticking clock that Paul and his companions are trying to get to the end of, but in the end I really don’t see that it was strictly necessary. The message of All Quiet…, at least the one that I thought it was trying to send, works better when Paul is just one small cog in the machine, that we never get to see being controlled, and where the people making the grand decisions about the war and its ending remain distant, unseen figures. Daniel Bruhl does a good job with his part of the film, but his whole part in proceedings felt like a totally different movie, one I would be interested in seeing, but not one that meshed well with the story of Paul.

Visually of course, this is a film that really succeeds in planting the viewer right in the middle of the First World War. Very little effort is spared in bringing an accurate representation of trench warfare to life, from the waterlogged trenches themselves, through to the reality of attack and counter-attack across No Man’s Land. While a little garish at times in the effort to portray as much misery as possible – one sequence, where Paul’s unit is attacked by tanks, then flamethrowers, then planes, seems a bit much – All Quiet… ultimately hits the right marks, especially in the manner in which camera mostly stays resolutely on Paul himself, as he scrambles through every bit of mud, the very thing that slowly encases him, stripping away his humanity until he seems more animal than man. War films, especially out-and-out anti-war films, always have to straddle the thin line between eye-catching excitement and a genuine depiction of martial horror in such scenes, and I think that All Quiet… does as good a job as you can expect with such things: its combat is a visceral, uncomfortable, unpleasant thing, shorn of the kind of spectacle Sam Mendes employed in 1917.

There are plenty of other great visual moments worth mentioning, such as the entire opening sequence elaborated upon above, which sets the scene in a brilliantly appropriate way for everything that is about to unfold. Another that springs to mind immediately is when Paul’s unit is called back to the front, with the lorries transporting them turning off their lights one by one as they get close, with light itself a danger in such circumstances. A search for a missing unit, adapted from a single throwaway line from the novel, gives us a powerfully taut jaunt through a factory complex that ends in horror. But away from the butchery and the fear, Berger is also able to frame quite well quieter moments between groups of soldiers pondering on the future, or on what they do not and may never have. Sven Budelmann’s score is understated: electric-sounding horns blare at moments, in a manner that might make you think of the industrial wasteland of Blade Runner, in the most ear-catching auditory element.

All Quiet… perhaps takes too much time to tell the story that it wants to tell, and one could make a case for it being a form of misery porn that, in overegging its main theme across an elongated running time, loses something very important. The sub-plot involving Erzberger is simply unnecessary too. But it’s more than possible to get past these issues. Kammerer gives an outstanding performance in the lead role, the film looks simply spectacular and its narrative is one that I feel does an excellent job at bringing to life the message of the seminal novel. It’s an odd coincidence that this review has gone up on Armistice Day: war should never be the answer, and while it is important not to always apply a moral equiveillance to both sides in any particular conflict, All Quiet… reminds us that the price of conflict goes beyond lives, but in lives destroyed. Recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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1 Response to Review: All Quiet On The Western Front (2022)

  1. Pingback: Film Rankings And Awards 2022 | Never Felt Better

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