All Quiet on the Western Front takes place during the final agonal gasps of World War I. As the armistice threatens to answer an ugly war with an ugly peace, young German recruits mass on the shell-pocked moonscape of Northern France. We focus on a small group of schoolboys as they pile into smoldering, soot-stained trenches. They are giddy, green, and thirsty for glory. Before the War to End All Wars comes to an ominously quiet close, these troops will get more miserable glory than they could ever handle.
The film opens on the scarred, blackened remnants of a battlefield. Soldiers lie rigid in the soupy muck, their bruised bodies frozen in one final moment of terror. Scavengers arrive to strip the dead: Shirts, boots, belts–they can all be patched up and reused. It’s an ugly testament to the grisly arithmetic of war. Provisions are precious. Soldiers come easy.
Indeed, the next wave of soldiers couldn’t be more naive. Much like Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, the film zeroes in on four babyfaced recruits, thrilled to be off on the adventure of war. Paul (Felix Kammerer) is the most cerebral and idealistic of the group. Albert (Aaron Hilmer), Behm (Adrian Grünewald), and Franz (Moritz Klaus) can’t contain their excitement. The boys bond with Kat (Albrecht Schuch), an older and more experienced grunt. It’s not long before they board a transport bound for the hellscape of the Western Front.
Here, director Edward Berger (who co-writes with Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson) makes a key divergence from Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark novel. In addition to the ground-level scenes of infantry being fed into a furnace, we also see the high-ranking intrigue around the armistice itself. Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) leads a German delegation to negotiate surrender with the Allied High Command. The Germans are eager to soften the sting of capitulation, while the seething French want to make the aggressors pay.
Meanwhile, the slaughter continues in Northern France. Paul and company experience stretches of boredom, interspersed with flashes of abject terror. In a flash of madness, field commanders try to sneak a few more blood-soaked battles before the armistice takes effect. (Sadly, this depiction was all too real.) These final exchanges take on a strange mix of desperation and pointlessness.
What follows is a series of sobering vignettes that depict the dehumanizing reality of trench warfare, each with escalating gruesomeness and heartbreak. All Quiet inevitably evokes other war movies, such as 1917, They Shall Not Grow Old, Saving Private Ryan, and even The Longest Day. At the same time, Berger imbues this film with a haunting aesthetic all its own. From beginning to end, this is a gorgeous desolation, resplendent in its terrifying visual poetry. Every scene fills severe and frostbitten, real and unreal, intimate and epic.
As for performances, Kammerer supplies the film with its fragile humanity. Paul approaches many of the films horrors with pure bewilderment. We feel every bit of his exhaustion and hope, and All Quiet owes much of its success to his heart-wrenching work. Schuch also hits hard, playing the grizzled vet who can’t comprehend life in the shattering silence of peacetime. Brühl is also solid as the exasperated politician, who can sense looming disaster built into the armistice, but is powerless to stop it.
This vision of Remarque’s novel will draw inevitable comparisons to Lewis Milestone’s 1930 version. That film was a startling masterpiece, an early artifact of anti-war cinema. Berger’s work is a brilliant modern refinement, with new layers of emotional depth and horrifying violence. If anything, the two films are fascinating companion pieces, and one adds to the appreciation of the other. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the year’s best films.
149 min. R. Netflix.