Im Westen nichts Neues (Nothing New in the West), the
Front. Edward Berger's film—the third to be made from the
Mendes' 1917, received the prize. At
in The New Yorker and
in The Guardian, many
of Oscar-Geilheit ("Oscar-lust").
The critical divide on the new All Quiet on the Western Front attests both
to its resonance and to the level of discomfort it creates. At a time when
Russian troops are laying waste to Ukraine, it is no surprise that a movie
about a nationalist war, even one fought more than a century ago, should
inflame passions. (Berger has noted, rightly, that he could not have
anticipated the invasion of Ukraine when he made his film.)
Lewis Milestone's 1930 version of All Quiet, which followed Remarque's
novel much more closely and won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, is
the better of the two. But that is not to deny the gut-punch power of
Berger's version. I am not the first reviewer to note that whereas
Remarque's novel and Milestone's film concern the brutalization, and
annihilation, of a group of teenage German soldiers from the same small
German town, Berger's film concentrates on the insanity of war itself.
In a Hollywood Reporter interview, Berger said that most war movies
reflect the viewpoint of the victorious American and British forces, which
is the total opposite of the German war experience. "In our national
psyche, there is nothing but guilt, horror, terror and destruction," he said.
"And we have ourselves to blame for that. It's not like someone attacked
us, it's our own fault. I think it makes us look at war differently."
Berger expanded on this in a later interview with The Wall Street Journal. "In an American film, you can kill a bunch of Germans and think, 'Great,'"
he said. "But in a German movie, you cannot tell that story. Any life that
gets taken must hurt somehow."
I understand Berger's rationale for changing the story of All Quiet on the
Western Front, but I don't agree with some of his choices, or see how they
advance his thesis. Certainly Remarque and Milestone didn't make
German war service look anything less than bleak or futile. Berger
removes all scenes of Paul Baumer (played by Lew Ayres in Milestone's
film and Felix Kammerer in Berger's) with his family; eliminates important
characters such as the officious Corporal Himmelstoss; and moves the bulk
of the film's action to the last four days before the Armistice. This last
decision excises much of the camaraderie between Paul and his fellow
soldiers, sapping Berger's film of the intimacy that makes Milestone's so
moving. An encounter Paul and his friends have with a group of French
girls, ineffably tender in Milestone's film, is played offstage and without
Paul in Berger's. Berger does include some touching scenes between Paul
and the older soldier Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch). In
one, the illiterate Kat receives a letter from his wife; Paul reads it to him,
and in doing so learns of a tragedy in Kat's past. There are also the scenes,
echoed in Milestone's film, of Paul and Kat stealing geese from a French
farmer; in an inversion of Marx, those scenes are played first as farce, then
Nevertheless, if Berger downplays who these soldiers are, he amplifies to
an agonizing degree what war is. We see soldiers bayoneted, crushed by
tanks, incinerated by flame throwers, blown to bits by shells. Paul and his
mates find an entire troop of recruits gassed to death. The presentation of
war is as shockingly vivid as in 1917 or Saving Private Ryan, but without
the sense of ultimate victory that alleviated the horror of those films.
Berger is right; this is not the usual viewpoint of war movies. Holding to
his premise, he also ensures that every death hurts. One scene that Berger
retains from the book and the earlier film—Paul in a foxhole, overcome
with remorse over the corpse of the French soldier he has just
killed—encapsulates the general mood of despair.
Even more amazing is the film's opening sequence, which begins with a
forest of pines and a family of foxes cuddling in their den. From this scene
of peace, the miasma of war arises. We see young soldiers running,
unsuccessfully, for their lives. We see their corpses stripped of uniforms
and hastily buried; the uniforms are sent back behind the lines, where they
are washed and mended, the seamstresses' sewing machines resounding
like machine guns. Finally we see a recycled uniform handed to the eager
young recruit Paul, who stops in confusion: the name of the uniform's
previous, dead wearer is still pinned to the tunic. Scorsese did something
similar, although more abbreviated, in Gangs of New York, showing Union
recruits shipping out for Civil War service while another ship laden with
Union dead unloads its cargo of coffins.
Berger veers most sharply from Remarque in scenes portraying the
German and French high command, which played no part in the original
story. These sections have drawn the heaviest criticism, as German official
Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl) tries to negotiate a peace agreement
with intransigent French Marshal Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de
Montalembert). It is here that some critics have accused Berger of
promoting the "stab-in-the-back" theory of the Armistice, with literal
echoes at film's end. (Historians tell us German generals advanced that
story to deflect blame from themselves for the defeat. Erzberger died from
that lie three years later, via an assassin's bullet. Foch, conversely, had
statues raised in his honor and streets in multiple countries named after
him.) I think the negotiation scenes are strong per se, and Berger's slant on
the Armistice can at least be debated. However, I prefer Remarque and
Milestone's focus on infantrymen trapped in a conflict that makes less
sense with each new bloodletting.
The Armistice was signed at 5:10 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, but Foch decided to
set the official cease-fire at 11 a.m. This was partly to ensure that word of
war's end got out to all the troops, but also because Foch liked the
symmetry of ending the war at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the
eleventh month. That love of symmetry cost nearly 3,000 lives on the
morning of that November 11.
Berger creates a German general named Friedrichs (Devid Striesow).
Friedrichs, as Alex Ross notes, is reminiscent of Erich Ludendorff, the right
-wing general who in 1923 joined Hitler in the Beer Hall Putsch. He also
resembles the swinish French generals in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, who frame three soldiers for cowardice to save face for an incompetently
planned attack. Bivouacked in a sumptuous mansion, drinking wine,
smoking cigars, the bullet-headed Friedrichs grouses at his bad luck that
the war is ending. "I am a soldier," he tells his adjutant. "What is a soldier
Friedrichs, a miles gloriosus by proxy, responds to news of the Armistice
by ordering an attack just before 11. Such an attack was indeed ordered,
according to Ross—but not by a German general. Ross tells the true story,
and Americans will not feel pride at reading it.
Though not as breathtaking in its technique as 1917 or Saving Private
Ryan, All Quiet on the Western Front is solidly made. Berger gets
masterful assistance from cinematographer James Friend, whose
panoramic shots of nighttime battles resemble sunsets in Hell, and
composer Volker Bertelmann, whose repeated three-note motif injects acid
into viewers' bloodstreams.
The acting is praiseworthy throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, despite Berger's de-emphasis on individual characters. The standouts are
Schuch, who projects a salt-of-the-earth decency, and Kammerer, who
bears a slight resemblance to 1917's George MacKay and has the same
quality of heartrending honesty.
It is almost redundant to say that All Quiet on the Western Front is
punishing to watch, and I wish Berger had hewed closer to the original
story. I understand the caveats others have about the film, but I also
appreciate it as a persuasive depiction—and by extension a
denunciation—of war. Both Berger and Milestone use the ancient quote
from Horace, what Wilfred Owen—killed a week before the
Armistice—denounced as the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori