It’s the reality of modern war films – or, at least, the good ones – that they are often terrifying and entertaining at the same time. You could say that’s a contrast that comes from the kinetic, larger-than-life nature of the movie medium. Or you could say it’s a truth that shows something fundamental about war: that the reason war goes on, for all its horror, destruction and death, is that something in human nature is drawn to war. Movies, in their own way, do this for us. However, again, I am talking about the good ones. There is no stronger example than “Keeping Ryan Private.” I have never seen a more entertaining war film, and I have never seen a war film that made me face, so memorably, the invisible horror of the blood and destruction of war.
In contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” sounds like a stripped-down experience—morally, spiritually, and dramatically. Based on the 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, it’s not a movie that tries to turn the meat-grinding horror of the First World War into some sort of “spectacle,” in the manner of Sam Mendes’ video game apocalypse. In 1917 he did. The hero of the film, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), is a student who, three years into the war, joins the German Imperial Army to fight for the country. Soon he is sent to the Western Front, a place where millions of soldiers have died in what is a war of genocide where no world has exchanged hands.
During the war, the “capture” of land on the Western Front was minimal; the position of the front line did not extend more than half a mile. So why did all those soldiers die? For no reason. Because of a tragic – one might say obscene – historical accident: that in WWI, the methods of warfare were caught between the old, “classical” method of static combat and the new reality of long-range slaughter created by technology. By the end of the war, 17 million men had fallen between the lines.
The 1930 Hollywood version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” directed by Lewis Milestone, is widely regarded as an anti-war film. But, yes, if you watch it now, the war scenes won’t make the audience shudder the way they did a century ago. The bar for horror and on-screen carnage has been raised beyond that. Edward Berger, the director of the new “All Quiet”, puts the stages of his war in what has become the current standard of exploding-on-the-earth, debris-flying-everywhere, war-hell-for-its-violence – a strange method of merciless destruction. He does it politely, but no better than that; he does not begin to touch the quality of thinking that caught us in the war cinema of Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov. Coming out of the trenches, Paul and other soldiers face a merciless hail of bullets, face down in mud, shot in the gut or head, attacked with sabers and sabers. .
However, soft-hearted Paulo, wearing his new uniform from the corpse of a fallen soldier (a point meant to show the endless cycle of death in WWI), somehow fights back and survives. He strikes us as a mild-mannered young man, yet there is a ruthless killer inside him. Shooting one soldier, and stabbing him with one knife, becomes a desperate hero, and I put it that way because I never found his intelligence on the battlefield particularly convincing. Berger, as a filmmaker, wants to bring us “closer” to the war, but the horror of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is in your face and pure in its presentation. Maybe that’s why it feels so numb to me.
Great war films don’t care about mixing human drama into combat. They show the characters as violent and are described as their platform for violence. But the novelty of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is two and a half hours of astonishing minimum, as if this is somehow a measure of the film’s integrity. The soldiers, including Paul, are rarely sketched, and it is relieved when the film cuts to the usual scenes of the German vice chancellor, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), as he tries to make peace with the French generals. they attacked the German army. Negotiation is one-sided; the French, holding all the cards, demanded surrender on their terms. But we register, behind the Erzberger, the endless anger of the German officials, which will continue in the next war.
Stanley Kubrick, with “Roads to Glory,” made the greatest movie about trench warfare, and he wasn’t shy about involving us in the actual game. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is wooden, so that even if the armistice is struck there is still another episode of fighting, all to show, with a painfully painful highlight, that the number of bodies in the First World War continued to increase without reason. Anyone in their right mind would agree with that. However “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a war movie as a thesis statement. It always makes its point, leaving you with less error than nothing.