Daniel Bruhl

All Quiet on the Western Front



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

The Zookeeper’s Wife


Like so many recent movies, The Zookeeper’s Wife is based upon a true story, even if closer examination quickly reveals that (as ever) several major liberties have been taken with the facts in order to dramatise the proceedings. But there is a remarkable tale at the heart of this film and it’s evident that Atonina and Jan Zabinski were an extraordinarily brave couple, who really did risk their lives in order to save those of around three hundred Jewish people during the Second World War.

The film opens in 1939, when Antonia (Jessica Chastaine) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), are the proud owners of the Warsaw Zoo. There’s an idyllic, chocolate-boxy feel to the early scenes, as Antonina pedals cheerfully around the zoo grounds dispensing love and care to the resident creatures – doubtless intended to contrast with the grim realities to come. And come they do, because, of course, pretty soon Warsaw has been invaded by the German army and the zoo devastated by bombing raids.  An acquaintance of the Zabinskis, German zoologist (and Nazi) Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), offers to take the zoo’s rarer species to Germany ‘for safe keeping’. He also exhibits evident romantic interest in Antonina.

The Zabinskis consequently decide to exploit this interest by offering to turn their zoo into a massive pig farm, using the resulting meat to feed the German troops, something that Heck happily agrees to – but the couple are secretly planning to use the extensive cellars of their zoo to hide Jews, smuggled from the nearby ghetto, in order to help them escape to freedom. It’s a reckless ambition and one that’ll expose them to considerable danger…

This is a decent and perfectly watchable film, built around a strong performance by Chastain in the central role but – even though the story incorporates some devastating events: the heartless rape of a young Jewish girl; the callous murder of two other women;  the desperate plight of Warsaw’s Jewish population – the film never quite manages to generate the emotional power you’d expect from a story like this. I feel somehow distanced from the onscreen horrors and that is a problem.

Still, this is nonetheless an interesting tale plucked from the pages of history, and the courage of the Zabinskis deserves to be celebrated. The good news is the film is available to watch right now on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney