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.