In 1933 Germany, as the Nazis marked books for public burning, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front made it onto the list for destruction. The novel’s anti-war themes no doubt posed a threat to the ultranationalist group as they tried to stir up further support for their fascism. All Quiet on the Western Front, then, has always posed a threat to its harshest detractors. It’s a beautiful, complex novel that examines the horrors of World War I on the German front lines, and although not a memoir, Remarque’s own experiences of war colour the book’s outlook. It has been adapted several times in the past, but the book now has a new, German-made cinematic version. So confident is Germany in the film’s merit that they’ve put it up for consideration in the Academy Awards international film category.
The story follows 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), who fakes a parental permission signature and signs up to go to WWI with his friends, all of whom wear rose-tinted glasses when it comes to what it means to be a soldier. Together, they set off for the Western Front, hoping to march on Paris. Along the way, Paul will befriend a man named Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), with whom he closely bonds. Paul will stare down the barrel of the Great War and face horrors he could not have imagined.
All Quiet on the Western Front can easily be described as a horror movie and definitively an anti-war movie, one that shows the claustrophobic creep of death on the battlefield. Blood leaves wounds in rivers through the air, tanks roll their way through the fog, and the trenches are muddy with old water. The film doesn’t shy away from showing crushed bodies, stabbed chests, and pierced necks at length and in detail.
The film’s interest in the divide between the violence of humankind and the peaceful natural world is fascinating, even if not fully explored. The film opens with shots of a mother fox sleeping in a den with her kits. Images of the countryside feature throughout the film, showing the tranquillity of nature untouched by humans as the war rips bodies apart. Unlike the forests, the trenches and the no-man’s-land between them feel artificial and crude.
The film is so focused on the sights of war that we lose some characterization; All Quiet doesn’t share with us Paul’s background, his dreams, or what he has at stake beyond his own life. Paul is a raw nerve, a sensory organ. We experience the traumas of war through him, and those experiences shed light on the person he is. With that said, the long stretches of time without combat, when things slow down and the men talk, had room to develop him as a protagonist. In the book, we learn about Paul through his first-person narration. Here, we don’t learn much about Paul at all. While this doesn’t ruin the movie, it does make it feel more sensational–a parade of horrors without a clearly-wrought person at the centre holding the story together. One thing that helps avoid some thinness in Paul’s character is Felix Kammerer’s excellent performance. He vacillates between committed soldier and terrified boy as the war tears on.
Although the film isn’t for the most squeamish, even if you’re somewhat sensitive, it’s worth pushing through the gore to understand the film’s anti-war perspective. I can’t speak to the movie’s historical accuracy, but it does a keen job of scrutinizing the hubris of military leaders that led to the needlessly drawn-out war conflict. It shows how those leaders, safe in their train cars and warm government buildings, had no idea what it was like to be a soldier on the ground. But we see both worlds, their disconnect, and the immense loss it causes. All Quiet on the Western Front may not be a perfect character-driven piece, but it does serve as a powerful reminder of the waste that war brings.
All Quiet On The Western Front is streaming on Netflix.
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter