Albrecht Schuch

All Quiet on the Western Front

05/11/22

Netflix

Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1923, was that rarest of things – a runaway bestseller that carried at its heart a powerful anti-war message. In 1930 it was adapted into a movie, directed by Lewis Milestone, and it easily won that year’s Oscar for best film. In 1979, a pedestrian TV version struggled to compete with what had gone before and is now pretty much forgotten. It would be a brave soul indeed who thought they could do anything fresh with the subject.

Hats off then to writer/director Edward Berger, who steps gamely up to the diving board and takes a headlong plunge. Here is a version of the tale that doubles down on the futility of warfare and is able to depict the full visceral horror of life and death in the trenches in ways that Milestone would never have been allowed to in the 1920s.

We begin with a chilling scene of hundreds of dead German soldiers in the aftermath of a battle. We see their uniforms bieng stripped from them, then taken away to be laundered and packaged. Next we encounter our hero, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), still a naïve teenage schoolboy. He and his classmates are swept up in the idea of being heroes for a just cause and can’t wait to enlist, to do their duty. But all too soon, they arrive on the Western Front, unwittingly wearing the dead men’s uniforms, and begin to realise that all their childish fantasies are about to be torn to pieces by the bloody conflict around them.

The set pieces that follow make for harrowing viewing. The battle scenes are epic in scale, brilliantly captured by James Friend’s cinematography, and Berger doesn’t flinch from depicting scenes of utter carnage. An extended sequence where Paul’s battalion encounters tanks for the first time is particularly memorable – but there are quieter scenes too. Paul’s growing friendship with his comrade ‘Kat’ (Albrect Schuch) is expertly drawn, and the regular cutaways to politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), frantically trying to negotiate a truce as yet another brutal conflict approaches, add notes of suspense. Of course, we all know where this is leading. Volker Bertelmann’s ominous score contributes to the growing sense of unease.

Milestone’s iconic ending (taken from the novel) is so well known, I completely understand why Berger chose not to use it. In this version, he offers a desperate race against time, which may lack the elegance of the original concept, but the utter futility of the situation is once again brought to the fore and it makes for a powerful conclusion.

I can hardly recommend this as an uplifting watch – indeed, there are moments here that make me want to look away. But the novel’s original message is still very much in evidence.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

System Crasher

18/04/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Here’s a tip for you: don’t watch this film if you’re in the mood for a bit of light entertainment to help you while away a locked-down evening. Also, don’t watch it if you’re up for something sad but ultimately up-lifting. In fact, don’t watch it at all unless you’re prepared to spend a couple of hours feeling horrible and helpless, sobbing intermittently, furious about the way we let down our most vulnerable kids.

And nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) is very vulnerable. Traumatised in her infant years, she is bursting with rage. Her social worker, Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), is running out of options. Benni has been expelled from so many group homes there’s nowhere left to try. All she wants is to go back to her mama (Lisa Hagmeister), but that’s not possible. Not when mama’s abusive boyfriend is there; not when mama fails every time to prioritise her daughter.

It’s utterly, devastatingly, heartbreaking. I don’t remember when I last cried so much. Zengel’s performance is extraordinary. Her Benni is a desperate child, who just needs someone to love her. But she’s so damaged, so violent and so destructive that not many adults can cope with her. Sometimes it seems like a breakthrough might be possible: there’s a string of well-meaning professionals such as her school escort, Micha (Albrecht Schuch), who go out on a limb to try to help. But three weeks’ respite in the woods isn’t a permanent home; a friendly mentor is no replacement for a family; they can never give enough. And Benni’s yearning is so vast it’s all-consuming. Everyone wants to make things better but no one knows what to do.

The film is German, so the social care set-up is different from ours here in the UK. But the inadequacy of a bureaucratic system to address the needs of a wounded child is all too recognisable. The team around Benni are decent, dedicated folk, their anguish as palpable as hers as each of their efforts fails.

Writer/director Nora Fingscheidt has crafted System Crasher to perfection, depicting Benni’s calamitous story in unflinching detail. I especially like the razor-sharp flickers of flashback we are shown whenever Benni begins to freak out, brief glimpses into the suffering that has shaped her blighted life. I like the colours too: a light-saturated palette that seems to suggest brighter possibilities.

Sadly, for Benni, such possibilities are only dreams. This is truly a modern tragedy.

5 stars

Susan Singfield