‘All that’s left separating us from an armistice is false pride…’
There has been plenty of great war films produced in the last fifty years or so. Nearly all of them take place during World War Two or Vietnam, however. The First World War, the Great War… it just isn’t cinematic. It was attritional and heartbreaking and mostly futile. As the coda to this film laments, millions of men were killed for the sake of a few hundred yards. In World War Two, the allies joined forces to defeat an indisputable evil, unlike anything the world had seen before. On the western front, nobody really knew why they were fighting…
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of the same name, All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of a group of young men, boys really, and their exploits fighting on the front line. Baumer (Felix Kammerer) is our protagonist, and he is joined by the illiterate and philosophical Kat (Albrecht Schuch), the amorous Franz (Moritz Klaus) and the relative veteran Tjaden (Edin Hasanovic).
One of the most startling things about writer-director Edward Berger’s adaptation is how quickly the illusion of the war hero is shattered. The boys are sent straight to the frontline and immediately discover the terrible realities of trench warfare. And boy, is that depiction brutal here. This is a bleak film about a bleak, hopeless war. As with that other classic anti-war text Catch-22, the violence here is presented in a way that is matter-of-fact and relentless, and as with Joseph Heller’s iconic novel, there are moments of incredible humanity and even humour thrown in the mix as well.
Some of the imagery is perhaps a little too on the nose. The fat generals eating fat meals while delaying the decision to end the war is the kind of low-hanging fruit that the rest of the film avoids, as is one dying soldier’s literal ascent from a bolthole into the light, but these are minor quibbles against what is an otherwise perfect film. The unconventional score is jarring and even frightening. The performances incredible with Kammerer and Schuch both terrific. At over two and a half hours I never felt bored. Not once. The world that is built here is so rich and so heartwrenching that it is impossible to resist being taken on a saliently emotional journey.
All Quiet on the Western Front is not just the best modern film about World War One, it’s probably the best film about that conflict ever made and one of the best war films period. An instant masterpiece that is unfortunate to have been released in the same year as another work of genius.
In the end, the message remains depressingly familiar. Innocence will be lost. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. War is hell.