War is hell. That’s not a novel statement, but it is a cogent one. Most reasonable people understand that war, especially world war, is a terrible thing and meant to be avoided. It’s also something that presents a challenge to filmmakers attempting to depict the horrors of war. In the case of the 2022 incarnation of All Quiet on the Western Front, not punches are pulled in the effort. This movie drops you into all of its awful muck in order to hammer home the point that it’s a dehumanizing and ultimately futile endeavor. More challenging than your typical war flick, it manages to make its thesis largely effectively.
All Quiet on the Western Front presents an old story in a new and visceral manner. While not unbearable in any major way, the muck and the mud, as well as the general awfulness of war, is presented really well here. There’s a bit of a repetitive nature to the film, which at least in part is intentional, but its compelling nature ebbs and flows. It’s always a good movie, but only on occasion does it become a great one.
This take on the novel of the same name begins by having us follow a young soldier on the verge of breakdown in the midst of World War One. Once his fate is revealed, we move to Paul (Felix Kammerer), an even younger wannabe recruit. Forging his parents’ signature in order to serve, he and his friends enlist, full of hope and national pride. Forming a bond with an older officer in Stanislaus Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), his youth and innocence is quickly shattered when the shooting begins.
As Paul and his friends struggle to survive, the horrors of war are repeatedly hammered home. At the same time, in luxurious indoor settings, Army top command and politicians debate the end of the war. While General Friedrich (Devid Striesow) and others are ready to just press on, a group led by Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) push for a conclusion before anyone else dies. As the debate rages on, more and more young men are led to the slaughter.
You’re very much put into the shoes of Felix Kammerer throughout, making him who we form a bond with. Kammerer is solid in the role, slowly losing his wide-eyed innocence. He’s definitely best in show, but it’s not a performance that you remember as vividly as you might hope to. Daniel Brühl is fine in almost a cameo, but it’s a fairly superfluous role. Supporting players, in addition to Albrecht Schuch and Devid Striesow, include Aaron Hilmer, among others.
Filmmaker Edward Berger really nails the aesthetic of All Quiet on the Western Front. From the pounding score from Volker Bertelmann to the gritty cinematography by James Friend, the technicals are all terrific. Berger’s adaptation, which he co-wrote with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, honors the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, even if it never feels like it’s saying much new. Berger is at his best with the look of the movie, and it really is strong direction. It just says the same thing, over and over again, for nearly two and a half hours.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a large scale war epic determined to tell you how bad war is. World War I has gotten more treatment recently, with 1917, for example, so it’s not just the original All Quiet on the Western Front representing anymore. This German language version isn’t necessarily superior, but it’s a tech achievement, without question. Hitting Netflix, it offers up history laid bare, dirt and all.