World War One has not been forgotten. Its representations though, run the risk of distancing us from it. The period prior to its outbreak seems like the lost world of a costume drama. As the historian, Christopher Clark put it “…if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too” 1 . Another problem is the scratchy sped-up black-and-white footage of the time. Somehow, we can’t connect to it.
One famous portrayal of the war is ‘All Quiet on the Western Front‘. It began as a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the conflict, and was a huge bestseller internationally. It was made into an excellent movie in 1930, less successfully again in 1979 and now as the first German-language version on (inevitably) Netflix in 2022. It is the story of an idealistic group of students who fall for nationalist propaganda and join the army at the outbreak of the war. The main characters are Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer), one of the new recruits, and ‘Kat’ Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch) an old hand who befriends him.
The treatment of the story in its latest manifestation differs significantly from its earliest screen version. One of the biggest changes is that less time is devoted to building the relationships between the characters. This is true both in the initial home environment the recruits come from and in how they get to know the experienced soldiers. Usually, this approach would not work well. The theory is that if we haven’t seen how the characters grow in their connections, then we can’t emotionally invest in their fate as viewers. In the latest movie, they manage to overcome this by showing just enough vignettes, for example, Paul and Kat stealing a goose from an irate French farmer or mundane daily routines such as peeling potatoes behind the lines, for us to buy into the bonds formed. There is sufficient confidence in the actors that there is even a potentially jarring two-year gap in time, during which we assume a lot has happened and now Paul is experienced. What exactly has occurred, we don’t know, but we get the gist, and it isn’t a problem.
The other major difference also relates to the time frame. Running parallel to the story of Paul and friends is that of the personnel responsible for signing the armistice in November 1918. In the original movie, we have no sense of when the final scenes take place. Here, the outcome for the soldiers is tied very closely to the armistice. Without wishing to spoil things, let’s say this adds a definite high tension missing from the original.
Stylistically the movie is of course in colour and thus avoids that distancing effect mentioned. However, a lot of the action takes place during the colder months, so there is a strong sense of darkness and the weather as a character. At times the landscape (a stream, barren farmland) and animals (foxes, a moth, a beetle) are shown, with the camera lingering on them. It’s a technique well employed, certainly to better effect than previous attempts such as by the otherwise brilliant director Terrance Malick in his World War 2 drama The Thin Red Line (1998). We see via these what the poet Tennyson described as “nature red in tooth and claw” with humanity very much a part of that. The music in the movie is mostly unobtrusive, though it is used rather crudely at times to signal a sense of impending doom.
For anyone interested in such things, there are scenes of fighting. These are very well choreographed and without using POV, show the action as Paul and his fellows experience it. There is mud, blasted trees, rats, and all the usual stuff. An interesting point here comes when Paul and his comrades pause in the middle of a trench raid to eat food left behind by the retreating French. It deftly speaks to the way war forces humans into thinking of the very basics of survival. Death or life? Food or starvation?
Apart from one famous scene also found in the 1930 version, the enemy is mostly anonymous and unseen. This vagueness is like the spectral effect gained in another recent World War One movie, 1917 (2019). For anyone surprised by there being only a few scenes of fighting in the movie, it’s worth remembering that soldiers did spend a lot of time doing other things. This is also an anti-war film, rather than one that lingers voyeuristically on all the blood and guts for its own sake. The book and original movie were boycotted and banned by the Nazis for these reasons, and that’s always a good reason to like something.
All Quiet on the Western Front is about a particular war and the specifics of that conflict are portrayed in a way that allows us to relate to it. It also speaks to us in universal terms about the futility of conflict on behalf of the nation-state. Hopefully one day we can transcend that conflict, but that’s another movie.
1 Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, (London, 2012) p. xxv