In an interview with Francois Truffaut for the Chicago Tribune, the discussion of violence and death in movies steered towards war films, for which Truffaut offered his now famous thoughts on the genre. “Some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” In that discussion, Gene Siskel offered Paths of Glory as a counterexample, but Truffaut asserted that Stanley Kubrick loved violence very much.
Truffaut’s words have been hotly debated by dozens of film critics over any number of war films and also have been misquoted and taken well out of context. Yet one can’t help but think of these quotes while watching the latest adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s great antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front. In director Edward Berger’s hands, a film about the isolation and desperation of individual soldiers is turned into a sweeping epic about the disposability of human life in the hands of bureaucrats and aristocrats.
2022’s All Quiet is technically very well-made. The film has received a raft of nominations at both the BAFTAs and Academy Awards and has made out like a bandit at the former. James Friend’s cinematography uses light liberally yet not overbearingly, bucking the trend of big blockbuster movies of going unnecessarily dim. He also makes judicious use of jerky, handheld camerawork, employing it for real dramatic effect as opposed to a constant, nausea-inducing visual language. Volker Bertelmann’s score is very much in the tradition of maximalist discordance popularized by Hans Zimmer’s Inception score, but it serves as an interesting contrast to the visually rich time period that the film embodies excellently.
The biggest departure from the original novel is perhaps All Quiet’s best feature: the political discussions about the toll that the war is taking on all countries and the calls for a potential armistice. Remarque’s novel was very much focused on Paul’s experience (here played by Felix Kammerer) and how war and the misery it causes makes him more insular and incapable of connecting with “civilians.” The civil nature of these discussions about unimaginable losses makes a travesty of the real horror that the soldiers are facing. In fact, if you have never read the book or seen the acclaimed 1930 film, this film may very well work for you as both an entertaining film about WWI and a sweeping indictment of the powerful figures that use human lives as countless pawns in ridiculous geopolitical chess games.
But All Quiet on the Western Front does a disservice to the book. This version takes away much of the personal element of Paul’s struggle to deal with the real psychological damage of the war. There is no mention of his inability to connect with his father, who has not seen wartime action. The book also has long stretches of the soldiers speaking cynically about the war and the skepticism toward authority. The changes are somewhat understandable since Berger and company are essentially making a film that is quite different from previous adaptations.
And even if you have no familiarity with the book, you may feel uncomfortable with what this adaptation is doing in depicting war. Going back to Truffaut’s quote, the film cannot resist showy sequences and exciting battle sequences that still manage to romanticize war. An especially showy sequence towards the beginning of the film can serve as a litmus test for its viewers. We see a dead soldier’s uniform being recycled. It is sent to the battlefield to a squad of seamstresses who wash and restitch it until Paul receives it with the deceased soldier’s name tag still attached. The officer who gives him the uniform says that it was given to him because it didn’t fit its previous owner and then he rips off the nametag, letting it fall to ground where it joins a mass of previous ripped nametags. If this sequence impresses you, you will most likely be onboard for the rest of the film. If it does not, then you will not really buy into the rest of the film.
The filmmakers made an adaptation that would appeal to a wide audience and in that respect, they succeeded brilliantly. Perhaps it was because they knew it would be on Netflix, the largest streaming service in the world, and that their adaptation needed to work for people who aren’t Germans, who would have an intimate familiarity with a staple of German high school classes. But making a complex, cynical work of art into an easily digestible narrative about the haves versus the have nots can perpetrate misunderstanding about the real, insidious effects of war rather than illuminate them.
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