Adapting a novel almost a century old can be challenging. Even more so when the original film adaptation is lauded as one of the greatest examples of Western cinema tackling an anti-war message. And yet, Edward Berger's 2022 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is a true marvel of filmmaking. One that thunders with emotional resonance and cinematic prowess, without ever wavering on the ideals of the original novel.
Berger's version of the 1929 novel follows the same core principles of plot, with one additional strand helping to drive home the anti-war tone. The main narrative follows Paul Bäumer, played by Felix Kammerer, a 17-year-old German boy who enlists in the Imperial German Army along with his school friends, guided by notions of patriotism and civic duty, believing their efforts will be a grand adventure they can share together. The harsh realities of trench warfare set in immediately upon arrival – sickening conditions, low morale and persistent mortal danger. With one of the friends perishing on their first night on the Western Front, all impressions of romanticism are shattered, and Paul must fight for his survival until instructed the war is over, desperately trying to maintain any semblance of self.
One change from the original plot however, are the Armistice talks taking place alongside Paul's story. Starring Daniel Brühl as Matthias Erzberger, a key figure in the peace effort and negotiations, we follow the behind-the-battle lines manoeuvring, that led to the ceasefire, and in doing so, the true picture of the film comes into being. Futility. All the loss and suffering of Paul and his compatriots, of Russian boys and French soldiers, of British artillery men and innocent civilians. From the first shot until the final bayonet thrust, All Quiet on the Western Front drives home of the futility of the war itself, playing on the whims of the negotiations and insecurities of high command while lives are destroyed before them. Berger's direction captures the essence of this with composure, never pushing the film, or its depictions of warfare, into something it isn't. It's impassioned filmmaking at its finest.
The core anti-war themes and the poise in which they are delivered are not all that make All Quiet on the Western Front so special, far from it. The commitment from Berger, along with D.O.P James Friend to capture the scale of the trench warfare and of troop movements along gnarled pathways is sumptuous. With a mix of practical effects and seamlessly incorporated visual effects, All Quiet on the Western Front feels almost grand, if it weren't for the harrowing story at the heart of the images. While its nine Academy Award nominations include Best Picture, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see All Quiet on the Western Front rewarded for its remarkable ‘below the line' technical achievements.
The performances by the cast deserves their own praise too, if not from any award bodies, they'll at least receive it here. Felix Kammerer brings a tragic level of pathos to Paul, taking him from naïve schoolboy seeking the call to adventure, to battle-hardened killer by movies end. Lost of all innocence that travelled with him to the Western Front. Joining Kammerer with plaudits, Albrecht Schuch in his role as Kat, a more seasoned soldier who becomes brother-in-arms with Paul, guiding him through the harshness of war, acting as his tether to something resembling normality.
Quietly hitting streaming in late 2022, All Quiet on the Western Front isn't the flashiest of films as we approach award season. No wide theatrical release. No A-list stars to place on top of a poster. No phantasmagorical multiverse story or biopic of global sensation. Just reality, the futile reality that World War One, and indeed all wars, had no winner. A harrowing, yet beautiful requiem for all those who did.
All Quiet On The Western Front is available to watch on Netflix now