Based on German WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s book of the same name, All Quiet on the Western Front is an immersive and brutal anti-war story. Adapted to the screen by director Edward Berger, the film studies the extreme physical and psychological effects of being a soldier in the midst of endless violence and terrible conditions. Told from a German point of view, we see in detail how the country’s propaganda led soldiers to their almost-guaranteed deaths during the first World War.
Occupied France, amid World War I. All is calm on the western front until it suddenly isn’t. Shells, bullets, and mortars. These are the noises that ring out as the German soldiers are ordered to storm No Man’s Land and take the opposing French trenches. Berger highlights the cyclical and wounding nature of war right from the start. After introducing the state of World War I, we meet Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a new recruit in the German army who fakes his mother’s signature to enlist with his friends.
The gang of childhood friends at the center of our story is first cheerful as they preach that they will take Paris in no time, all while being completely unaware of the stalemate on the front lines. As soon as they reach the battle, reality starts to settle in as the bodies of their comrades begin to stack up quickly, attack after attack. Their arrival on the western front is just the beginning of a long venture to try to advance, literally only meters, ahead into French territory.
English cinematographer James Friend proves to be a succinct pair with Edward Berger as they pull off some of the most harrowing set pieces of the year. Friend’s camera never shies away from the bloodshed, complementing the narrative’s themes in the most powerful way. As in the book, Berger’s goal with All Quiet on the Western Front is to shine a light on the cruel reality of war, best shown in the No Man’s land-set scenes which are gut-wrenching and ruthless to no end.
All Quiet on the Western Front primarily follows young Bäumer and his German comrades as they spend years in the trenches, going through periods of silence and all-out chaos. We are placed in an intimate position where one is inherently bent to empathically connect with the characters. The film is at its most startling when Friend’s camera shifts to close-ups, highlighting Felix Kammerer’s face caked in mud with the only glimmer of life being his eyes. Kammerer delivers an astounding performance, everything is emoted through his eyes; whether it be despair, horror, or glimpses of joy.
By setting most of the story towards the latter half of the historic conflict, All Quiet on the Western Front specifically puts an emphasis on just how tragic, and arguably meaningless, the loss of life was on both sides. The film harshly points out how war is motivated and primarily led by greedy political and military leaders who send common folk to the slaughter for their ambitions without ever being overtly preachy. It is especially pertinent today to those who have witnessed war; whether it be first or second-hand.
All Quiet on the Western Front boasts an erratic score that bursts in, regularly, without invitation. However, it’s undeniable that the music makes for an effective build-up of tension. The score’s powerful and sweeping entrances hold the power to quickly throw viewers into the abrupt nature of battle. Additionally, like all meticulously crafted war epics, sound design is key in immersing the audience. Edward Berger’s sound team does an excellent job of creating an ongoing atmosphere that pairs swimmingly with the Friend’s remarkable visuals throughout the film’s entire runtime.
Many comparisons will be made to recent war epics like 1917, but Berger’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front stands out with its unique perspective into the psyche of soldiers. It is far more authentic, personal, and grittier in these regards. Whereas 1917 is undoubtedly cinematic with Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning visuals, the film’s one-take gimmick disallows key moments. Through editing, All Quiet on the Western Front shows different perspectives from either side to build tension. This is something that1917 lacked, it only showed a tunnel vision view of war.
For example, in Berger’s film as the denouement approaches, and the war is about to end, we see a batch of relieved French men while making the audience privy to the twisted orders of an emotionless, war-driven German commander who sends his soldiers out for one final mission. It’s through such edits that the film’s thematic message reaches its highest effect. Obviously, filmmakers have the right to structure their work as they see fit, but Edward Berger’s technique in depicting a major historical event like WWI is far more effective. It’s more along the lines of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
All Quiet on the Western Front is an absolute knockout. It concludes as neatly as the book, having hammered in its anti-war message in a brilliant manner. It will certainly be hard to forget this adaptation, which is truly worthy of its iconic name. Additionally, with Germany having selected All Quiet on the Western Front to represent the country in the upcoming Best International Feature Oscars race, you can expect to be hearing a lot more from this Netflix release in the months to come. It really is that spectacular.