History may be told by the victors, but the viewpoint of a losing army has led to some fascinating cinematic classics. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet On The Western Front, already adapted into a seminal 1930 Hollywood film, is adapted again in its native language, and loses none of its impact.
The anti-war epic follows teenage soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) as he gleefully signs up for the German Army, told of the many glories that await his as he serves “the Kaiser, God, and the Fatherland”. As he gets to the trenches, he discovers the horrific reality, as he and his comrades endure hell to gain a few yards of mud.
It’s never quite clear how violent a war movie has to be in order to feel authentic. In the years since Saving Private Ryan, a harrowing, bullet-riddled sequence is almost a requirement. Here, Edward Berger puts the viewer in the trenches with unsettling efficacy, witnessing not only the loss of life but the psychological attitude toward death. Soldiers don’t have time to cradle their friends bodies, or process a comrade crushed by a tank, before a superior screams at them to keep going. These moments can be upsetting to watch, but there is a point being made.
The film rages against the futility of it all, as indifferent generals throw boys to the fire. In one ominous early scene, an officer tells Paul he has been given a uniform that was too small for another soldier. An expertly framed shot reveals to us that, in fact, he’s been given a dead man’s clothes. Daniel Brühl, a brilliantly subtle actor even in his Marvel adventures, shines as Matthias Erzberger, a minister trying desperately to bring about armistice, well aware every second costs more lives.
Over a century on from the events of the film, All Quiet On The Western Front finds a new way to frame the sheer madness of such a global conflict. The shifts in pace can feel rough at times, but Netflix’s award hopeful is respectful of the past.
All Quiet On The Western Front is in cinemas from October 14th and on Netflix from October 28th