I remember being assigned to read “All Quiet on the Western Front” when I was a sophomore in high school. Key word: assigned. Over the course of a month I would blow off reading the book at night and doing my assignments thinking that I could just flip through the book in the morning and fill out my assignment sheet before first block. And every single morning I overlooked the fact that a 16-year old trying to speed read a book at 7:00 A.M. wasn’t a sustainable formula. Not that I ever learned my lesson, I did this with just about every book I read in high school…and middle school…and most of college…okay, all of college.
That being said I was certainly familiar with the story enough that when I heard that Netflix was releasing an updated adaptation of the novel (an American version won Best Picture in 1931) my interest was piqued. Sure, the film is in German but Bong Joon-ho made a great point at the Golden Globes when accepting an award for Parasite: “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The man made a great point and over the last few years I’ve been more and more open to foreign films and it’s something I can’t recommend enough to all cinephiles out there. This film in particular is a tremendous example of a truly amazing film that audiences should suck it up and read the damn subtitles.
All Quiet on the Western Front, from director Edward Berger, tells the story of a band of young German soldiers fighting in the trenches in World War I as seen through the eyes of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and the men in his regiment. Paul, a student who forged his parents signature in order to enlist, is joined by several other friends from school who are eager to serve and achieve glory for fighting for the Motherland, however they quickly realize that fighting on the frontlines is far less glamorous than they could have ever imagined. They are quickly shown the ropes by Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), a seasoned soldier from humbler beginnings than Paul and his mates. From there it’s a story of survival as they struggle with enemy soldiers, tanks, elements, starvation, disease, and most of all (wait for it) themselves.
Those looking for a direct adaption of the book will likely be disappointed as several key storylines and characters are greatly altered or omitted. For those looking for one of the greatest war movies ever made, you might have hit the jackpot. While not quite at the level of Saving Private Ryan, my gold standard for war movies, All Quiet on the Western Front can go toe to toe with The Hurt Locker, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and many more classics. This film will unfairly be compared to Sam Mendes’ masterpiece 1917 though the similarities pretty much end at the fact that they are both WWI movies. While 1917 was more of a cinematography achievement with an ensemble cast over the course of a single day, this film focuses on a tighter group of characters, particularly Paul and Kat, and highlights their mental and physical decline over years of fighting.
Brutal is the first word that comes to mind when describing this film. The cinematography and production design pull no punches when showing the horrors of trench warfare. Corpses and body parts at every turn, rats, mud, water, shrapnel, explosions, constant paranoia, the film excels at showing the horrors of what the trenches were like without feeling excessive or shock value-y. The film seamlessly mixes in beautiful tracking shots showing the size and scope of battle and extreme closeups of fatigued and starving soldiers covered in who knows what. One little I noticed that I advise everyone to keep an on: look at Paul’s teeth over the course of the film. There’s one scene in particular that involves Paul fighting hand-to-hand against a French soldier that will resonate with you long after the credits roll.
Kammerer and Schuch get the bulk of the screen time and they both shine in their roles as two men from opposite walks of life who form an unbreakable bond. The cast also includes Daniel Brühl (Inglorious Basterds, Captain America: Civil War) as a German politician overseeing peace negotiations with France. I will say that this storyline is probably the only real issue with the film, not that they’re poorly written or executed, it just feels so disconnected from Paul’s story that it throws off the pacing at points and could probably shave 20 minutes off the film if removed. Anywho, Kammerer should be considered a dark horse Best Actor nominee. The arc we see as the eager and joyful recruit into a battle-worn shell of himself was truly remarkable. The scene I alluded to before will leave you completely horrified of what Paul has become and in tears watching him come to terms with what he’s become thanks in part to the performance of Kammerer.
This is without a doubt one of the best films of the year. Time will tell how the film plays at the Academy Awards, though it’s most certainly a lock as a Best International Film nominee, though it should be considered for Director, Adapted Screenplay, all the technical awards, and a pair of acting awards in addition to Best Picture. This will be cemented in my year-end Top 10 and I fully encourage anyone who can sit through a war movie to give this film a watch on as big a screen as possible. It’s currently streaming on Netflix but is also receiving a limited theatrical run.
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