It’s a fact of today’s war movies – or, at least, the good ones – that they tend to be scary and funny at the same time. You could say the tension grows out of the kinetic, larger-than-life nature of the film’s core. Or you could say it’s a fact that shows something important about war: that the very reason war goes on, because of its horror and destruction and death, is that there is something in human nature that is drawn to war. Movies, in their own way, do this to us. Again, though, I’m talking about the good guys. There is no more powerful example than “Saving Ryan’s Secret.” I have never seen a war film that is more exciting, and I have never seen a war film that made me experience, unforgettably, the unspeakable horror of blood and the destruction of war.
In contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” feels like an event stripped down to the bone – culturally, spiritually, and dramatically. Based on the 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, it’s not a movie that tries to turn the meat-grinder horror of World War I into some kind of “spectacle,” the way Sam Mendes’s video-game apocalypse. “1917” he said. The hero of the film, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), is a student who, three years into the war, joins the Imperial German Army to fight for the country. Soon he is sent to the Western Front, a place where millions of soldiers have already gone to their deaths in what is already a murderous war where no turf is exchanged.
During the war, the “conquest” of land on the Western Front was minimal; the position of the front line never moved more than half a mile. So why did all those soldiers die? Without reason. Because of the accident – one can say shamefully – an accident of history: that in WWI, the methods of fighting were caught between the old, “classical” method of fighting that stopped and the new reality of long-distance killing made possible by technology. By the end of the war, 17 million men had fallen between those cracks.
The 1930 Hollywood version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” directed by Lewis Milestone, is widely regarded as an anti-war symbol. But, yes, if you watch it now, the war scenes don’t make the audience shudder like they did a century ago. The bar for intimidation and killing on screen has been raised beyond that. Edward Berger, the director of the new “All Quiet”, arranges his war experiences in what has become the usual bombs-exploding-in-the-country, debris-flying-everywhere, war-is-hell-because-its-violence-is. -so-random mode of mysterious destruction. He does it to the best of his ability, but not more than that; does not begin to capture the level of imagination that captured us in the war cinema of Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov. Coming out of the trenches, Paul and the other soldiers are faced with a hail of merciless gunfire, mired in mud, shot in the gut or head, attacked with bayonets and knives. .
Yet the pale, kind-hearted Paul, whose uniform has just been removed from the corpse of a fallen soldier (a thought meant to symbolize the eternal cycle of death in WWI), somehow fights and survives. He strikes us as a gentle young man, but inside he is a brutal killer. Screaming to shoot one soldier, then slash another, he is, in fact, a desperate hero, and I put it that way only because I did not find his skills on the battlefield convincing. Berger, as a filmmaker, wants to bring us “closer” to the war, but the horror in “All Quiet on the Western Front” is in your face and also beautiful in its presentation. Maybe that’s why it feels so numb.
Great war films have not been slow to incorporate the personal drama of war. They show the players as aggressive and are described as their arena of violence. But the new “All Quiet on the Western Front” is two and a half hours of amazing minimalism, as if this were the measure of the film’s integrity. The soldiers, including Paul, are not written in, and you feel a sense of relief when the movie comes to the familiarity of the German vice chancellor, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), as he tries to bring peace with his French superiors. they defeated the German army. Conversations are one-sided; the French, who have all the cards, want to sacrifice according to their needs. But we register, behind Erzberger, the undying anger of the German officers, which will be carried forward in the next war.
Stanley Kubrick, with “Paths of Glory,” made the greatest war movie ever, and he wasn’t shy about bringing us into the real game. “All Quiet on the Western Front” sticks together, so that even when the armistice is struck there is still some combat activity, all to show, with the most tragic clarity, that the body count in World War I continued to rise without reason. Anyone with common sense would agree with that. However “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a war movie as the thesis states. It continues to make its point, leaving you unscathed rather than empty.