All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The Prudentialist

The Prudentialist

Observing the world from a dissident and realist perspective. Musings on culture, politics, and international relations.

While much of the right tends to pass up the 1928 novel by Erich Remarque for Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, All Quiet on the Western Front has received yet another film remake, this time by German screenwriter and director Edward Berger.

I am going to spoil this movie, and if you haven’t seen it or read the book, too bad.

I took the time this month to watch the film, albeit illegally, because I didn’t want to give Netflix any of my money. I had received several recommendations to watch the film, and after hearing many friends and acquaintances criticize it, I felt compelled to give my review and take. Like most adaptations, this is not a one for one plot rip from the book, and the changes made make it impossible for me to judge the film solely on its merits and presentation, as the political messaging behind it is very much for today’s audience and moral paradigm. I will note where the book and film differ when I find it necessary.

I wanted to like this film at first glance, and perhaps that is because I have a soft spot for media depicting the First World War, as our post 1945 world order treats its horrific sequel as the new year zero for its civic religion. From 1917 to Paths of Glory, it is important that the war that was the death knell for Europe as it was once known be depicted. That being said, there’s no way Hollywood produces “Storm of Steel” with today’s budget or special effects, but here’s to hoping one day.

That being said, let’s get into the review.

Most films of the First World War tend to fall into one of two categories, either capturing the courageous and heroic men in the midst of mass slaughter, such as 1917 or Sergeant York, or they are more explicitly anti-war, such as Paths of Glory or once again in this rendition of All Quiet on the Western Front. To maximize your viewing experience, I recommend watching this with subtitles on, and the German actors speaking their own native language. This is the best way to view all foreign films, as even if you don’t understand the language, some things like tone and expression can be understood across the language barrier that will be lost in dubbing.

For starters, the film starts off with a stark contrast to the book, wherein the protagonist, Paul Bäumer, joins the war much later, in 1917, rather than shortly after the war breaks out. Someone with a modicum of historical knowledge in mind, could see immediately the usual “rah rah nationalism is bad” narrative that comes out of so many postwar historiographies we see these days. I am reminded of the centennial of the end of the war in 1918, when then-Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Macron emphasized the importance of unity and cooperation rather than returning to the path of nationalism with its alleged disastrous consequences.

I’ll try not to go through the entire film scene by scene, just the ones that stand out to me.

It begins with the forging of Paul’s parent’s signature to sign up for the front at age 17, along with the rest of his classmates, all eager and excited for war. Whether by the nature of the fact that the 17 year olds of today look nothing like the 17 year olds of yesteryear, it sells the point well that these are kids in the modern context of the term. Felix Kammerer, the actor playing Paul is the same age as myself, 27 yet even in photos not taken from the film he looks much much younger. Fitting, because it’s clear that our way of life and what we eat on a daily basis has had a negative impact on testosterone and a lack of martial spirit, which feels like something everyone fears, in part because it’s associated with Nazism. The headmaster delivers rousing speeches about God and country, having lived through German unification and most likely serving as a young man in earlier wars against the French.I will note that there is no sign of the other combatants of this war, the English and the Americans are mentioned only in passing, but our understanding of the front based on the film and uniforms for it be a bloody and sordid affair between the French and the Germans.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if there had ever been a time when such a feeling had occurred, when we felt righteous and were called upon to fight? The aftermath of September 11th is the only thing that comes to mind, but only when America was attacked. I guess it speaks to an older culture being brought across, where conquest, honor, and the sense of “my nation and people” were common parlance and not some sort of bizarre far right ideal. Only propositions in this day and age, making the traditional concepts of Volk, faith, and nation, nothing more than foreign abstractions for which men died in the millions, allowing us to pat ourselves on the back and have our leadership say, “Aren’t we glad we’ve progressed from that?”

The pacing is critiqued for being slow, but I had no problem with it, but then again, this reviewer is someone who likes watching the unedited version of Andrei Rublev in one sitting. Yet it gives more time for the film to focus on humanization, and gives the lengthier pauses of day to day soldiering a chance to contrast sharply with the frenetic, fast paced shots of combat on the Western Front. It has no problem depicting gore or bloody melee, which is a pleasure to see on screen, as it hones in on the fact that the killing was indiscriminate and you could be killed at any time. This is rather in your face when a glasses wearing recruit from Paul’s school is killed in an artillery strike while in cover from the shelling. Paul survives this attack narrowly, as he soon finds himself awake and alive before being ordered to collect the tags of the dead.

Yet the film makes some clear changes, which paints the characters of the book and the politics of war in a totally different light. This film, like the book, is strongly anti-war, but through the lens of today’s progressive and contemporary liberal viewpoint, Berger paints Germany as a defeated nation willing to spare itself as an act of mercy on the senseless killings if it meant a request for an armistice.During the meeting of diplomats with the French delegation for an armistice, for example, there is no mention of reports of riots and French soldiers conducting mutinies all along the front as a form of retaliation against the French for leverage. Rather, we see these individuals capitulating to the demands, which, in my opinion, lends credence to the narrative that Armistice and, later, Versailles were a betrayal of the German people.

There are moments that do humanize our cast of characters, which makes their deaths and their mutilation all the more tragic. This is after all, the first truly modernized war where men would die by the thousands and tens of thousands over a few dozen yards of territory. There are major changes that I find insulting not only to the German spirit of soldiering but also just in general. For instance, in the book, Albert Kropp is the one who threatens suicide if his leg is amputated, but it is postponed, and indeed, he doesn’t kill himself.

If he were not here with us he would have shot himself long ago. But now he is over the worst of it, and he often looks on while we play skat. (p. 257)

This is changed for the sake of the film to Tjaden, who indeed kills himself violently with a fork at the Catholic Hospital. Is it to emphasize the “abelism” or the fear of being another cripple? There’s no mention of “the dying room” or the frustration the recovering and wounded soldiers have with the Catholic prayers, but instead a pointless suicide. If it is meant to tackle the issues of PTSD or anything we see in a contemporary sense, it is handled clumsily and is outright insulting.

Throughout the film, I felt an odd disagreeability with Paul. I saw a lot of myself in him— a man who would more than anything just like to survive and keep his friends alive as well. Yet the times that I saw real energy in Paul, and the times where I enjoyed the movie, is when Paul by the sheer nature of wanting to survive, became nothing more than a brutal killing machine. Whether shooting, stabbing, or clubbing, Paul becomes a different man when the whistle blows to go over the top. It is when you are rooting for him the most, not when he reverts back to a state of calm humanity. You want him to win, you want him to bash the Frenchman’s head in with the butt of his rifle, or to take aim and take down a French officer before he kills one of your fellow countrymen. It is in these moments that I felt the most engaged with the film, not because of the action but because of the transformation.

I myself have not seen war, I have a concealed carry weapon, and I have only had to draw my firearm once in my entire my life. I am aware that I am speaking with very literal and real distance from combat. I know veterans, and those who have killed, and you get two types. One who doesn’t want to talk about it, perhaps in the retention of his own humanity, and the other who longs for it again. Personally, I am not in the camp of the meme-able, “give war a chance” crowd. I am aware of my medical and physical limitations that would bar me from jumping over barbed wire and heroically dying for my nation. Do I not still have that desire, as a man, to go and fight and be part of something greater? Of course I do. Many men in the west still do, although it is placated to androgynous absurdity with simulation and video games.

Paul in the film is definitely in the first camp of the two types of soldiering men who have killed. It is most evident when he is in retreat from a French counter offensive with tanks and flamethrowers, does he take cover in a crater, and brutally stabs a French soldier to death. It is in the man’s death throes does he show remorse, showing him pictures of his family and such to be the last thing he sees, a quaint mercy for dying in a muddy hole far from your home. I understand the point, clearly if I were just a 17 year old being forced into a situation that wasn’t the glamorous ideal I was sold to in school I would be confronted with what I am and what I have done. However, there isn’t nearly enough of it throughout the film to convey regret or remorse. Instead it is done in this one scene, before rapidly hurrying off to shoot, survive, and do so. If this is intentional, then good, as it would show how in war humanity has to be killed in order to kill and live yet it certainly doesn’t seem to be that way. The pacing of the film, ruins more and more of its intended message.

I will praise the one trait Paul’s character takes on from the movie, wanting to be more like a mentor to the younger recruits near the end of the film, just as Kat was to him at the beginning. In fact in the final battle scene that concludes the film and inevitably Paul’s death, it is done for the sake protecting another young fresh face recruit, probably born around 1900 or 1901. It’s insane to think about; after all, Paul is probably only a year or two older than him, and yet he, too, becomes another dead man just minutes before the war ends.The cycle ends with the young man whose life he sacrificed becoming the next man to collect the tags, with Paul being another body to count and collect.

The side plot of the movie is the delegation dealing with Ferdinand Foch and the French side. We get a softer, more bureaucratic look that seems to go on the aspect that “we have lost and things must end now,” which gives us a more humanitarian view compared to the military’s. It is met with a rather insulting, over-the-head, and not so subtle message that it is right wing nationalist and militarist leaders that will get you killed instead. Von Hinderburg is portrayed as a stuffy old general who believes in the German ideal, and that it is worth the men being sent one more time over the front to be killed in a bloody melee, just for it to end abruptly as the 11th hour rings in. We don’t get to see the other side of the war very often, and I don’t expect to, but when we do, it’s met with outrage and contempt for the Germans, which paints an interesting picture, especially given that so many of the narratives that led to German rearmament and the rise of the NSDAP emerge from the political, military, and cultural fallout of the Armistice and Versailles. However I am not a German, I am looking at this with the context of an American with rather reactioanry opinions, and I too may be biased in this examination.

All Quiet on The Western Front (2022) is by another adaptation of the famous book, and spares no expense in going all out with its message, although its adaptation strays far from the martial courage and spirit shared by the men and women in the book. In fact there is no emphasis on the German homeland at all, aside from the efforts to bring the war to an end whereas the book shows us what life is like during and immediately after the war. Instead, we are given an attempt to humanize German soldiers, led by those who believe that the old ways of victory are still very much possible.It adheres strongly to contemporary and well-known understandings of The Great War and drives home the point with Paul’s untimely death.

I will leave you with a recommendation to watch this film, odds are there are things that I didn’t pick up on my first or second viewing. The acting is quite good, you should watch as I said earlier, in the original German.

War is a nasty and bloody thing, both in 1917 and today, in 2022. As horrific as that war was, and the current conflict today, I dread to think just how horrible things really will be come Christ’s return.

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