Movie Review: All Quiet On the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)

Tomorrow, November 11th, is the 104th anniversary of the end of World War I or, as it was known back then, the Great War. With so much useless death and destruction that it caused, who could have imagined back then that there would be a sequel just 21 years later?

In 1929, German-born novelist and WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque published “Im Westen nichts Neues” (In the West Nothing New), which described the mental and physical anguish the German soldiers experienced during the war. It was a strong indictment of blind nationalism and the book was a literary success on both sides of the Atlantic. The Nazis, however, weren’t fans of its anti-war message and they banned the book in Germany in 1933. Other nationalistic countries in Europe did as well. Hollywood, on the other hand, adapted the book into the film, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. The 1930 film was directed by Lewis Milestone, a war veteran as well, although he remained stateside editing war footage for the US government. It was an early entrant into the talkie film era and, even today, it remains a masterpiece work. At the 1929-1930 Academy Awards, the film won Oscars for Outstanding Production (today it’s called Best Picture) and Best Director. The book was adapted again, this time for TV, in 1979. This production starred Richard Thomas, and it was a big risk for the young actor to take on, as he was well known to audiences at the time as the impossibly wholesome John-Boy Walton. The gamble paid off though, and the film won a Golden Globe and an Emmy.

There now is a new version of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, this time in German by German director Edward Berger, who also shares the writing credit. Rather than a remake of either the 1930 or the 1979 films, this version of ALL QUIET is an adaptation of the book, meaning that there are scenes in this film that aren’t in the others and vice versa.

The time is Spring 1917 and 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) forges his father’s signature so that he can go off to fight along with his three friends who are all of legal age. When he receives his uniform, he notices that it has a tag on it bearing someone else’s name. The sargeant pulls the tag off, telling the boy that the uniform had been assigned to another soldier but it didn’t fit so he gave it back. It seems innocent enough until the camera pans down to the sargeant’s feet. Paul and his friends are deployed to northern France and they immediately find themselves in the thick of things with no training whatsoever. Fortunately for Paul, he is befriended by Kat (Albrecht Schuch, THE ROYAL GAME; BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ), an experienced soldier who takes the boy under his wing. As the battle grinds on for another year and a half, the horrors of war eat away at Paul’s soul. Meanwhile, on a train parked in the forest somewhere along the French-German border, German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl, THE KING’S MAN; CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR) and Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch are discussing the terms of their armistice agreement that will bring an end to the war. Not everyone, though, is happy about Germany’s surrender.

ALL QUIET remains as poignant today as it did almost 100 years ago. Reading news reports and seeing photos over the past few weeks of Russians, both young and old, being sent to fight in Ukraine having received no training nor wearing proper clothing, reminds us about how little we (okay, Putin) have learned from the past. This film needs to be required viewing for anyone who harbours the notion that going off to war is romantic. Better yet, any political leader who advocates war should be forced to send his/her son/daughter to the front lines.

Kammerer, in his feature film debut, puts in a fabulous performance. His face is like a blank canvas for the director and, through him, we see what Paul sees and, in a small way, experience what Paul feels. Expect to see him get a Best Actor nomination at next year’s German Film Awards. It’s Schuch, though, who is absolutely brilliant. He is one of those rare actors whose eyes speak volumes. Schuch has the distinction of being the first actor to win both the Best Actor and the Best Supporting Actor awards at the German Film Awards in the same year. No actor has ever achieved that feat at the Oscars. (Scarlett Johannsson was nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in 2019 but went home empty-handed, as did Cate Blanchett in 2007.) There are going to be obvious comparisons between this film and Sam Mendes’ Oscar winner, 1917, but while 1917 is a technical and cinematic tour de force, ALL QUIET is a much more interesting and powerful story.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is Germany’s entry for Best International Feature Film at next year’s Oscars. It is streaming now on Netflix. There’s a good chance it will land in my list of 10 Favourite Films of 2022. Highly recommended!

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