by Bryan & Heather
Sometimes the YouTube algorithm brings gifts at the most unexpected of times. About a month ago, Bryan happened to see a trailer recommended to him for a new, German-made adaptation of Erich Remarque’s classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. As we heard more, our interest deepened; not only would it star Daniel Bruhl–a favorite of ours–but it was purported to be Germany’s submission to the 2022 Oscars. Bryan was even so invested that he was willing to watch the German dialogue film with subtitles, though an English dub ultimately made that unnecessary. As we sat down to watch on Veterans Day, we were met with a film that certainly lived up to our hype yet, when compared to its source material, is both a faithful adaptation and a radically different story.
Berger’s film tells the story of Paul Baumer, a young man who, inspired by the nationalist rhetoric of his schoolmaster, enthusiastically enlists in the German Army in the spring of 1917 alongside his friends. The group is quickly thrown into the muddy hell of the Western Front three years into the war, and one is killed in their very first experience of artillery fire. Eighteen months later, in the fall of 1918, Paul and his remaining comrades are a tight-knight band, puckishly scrounging for supplies in the rear to stave off starvation and teasing each other about crushes, all while the unspoken shadow of returning to the front looms over them. In Berlin, the German government (in the form of Daniel Bruhl) realizes it cannot sustain such massive casualties any longer, and decide to meet with Allied High Command to negotiate an armistice. As talks proceed, however, the general in command of Paul’s sector of the front scoffs at any talk of peace, instead deciding to throw whatever men he has left at the enemy in a last-ditch attempt to gain glory from his chance to play at war.
The details of this retelling of All Quiet differ significantly from Remarque’s novel, at times enhancing its themes and at others evolving them into something quite different. Remarque’s Paul enlists soon after the declaration of war, when patriotic enthusiasm would have been much more believable. He is thus a much more seasoned veteran by 1918, ground down over more time and seeing more horrors. This also means that much of Paul’s intervening actions, like a visit home or forays behind the lines, are cut from the film, eliminating themes of the alienation of soldiers from the civilians they’re supposedly fighting for. Instead, Berger focuses entirely on the meat grinder of the Western Front, probably the most memorable takeaway of the novel. Invention of of Bruhl’s peace commissioners and a stereotypical chateau general safe behind the lines while he orders his men slaughtered heightens the effect, giving the audience a tense hope that maybe, just maybe Paul can survive the callous disregard for his own life in the cogs of war to make it home. His fatal wounding literally seconds before the cease-fire at 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918 is of course the tragic death of this hope, one made almost necessary by the film’s construction. Ironically, however, this radically changes the nature of Paul’s death from the novel–and renders the film’s title nonsensical. Rather than fighting desperately to survive the war on its final day, book Paul dies in October of 1918, a full month before war’s end. His expression is almost peaceful, as if he was happy for it all to be over. The day this young man died was considered so peaceful that the reports only read “All quiet on the Western Front.”
While these differences in storytelling and symbolism are largely a matter of taste and adaptation, the history shown on screen in Berger’s film is unfortunately lacking, especially when viewed from a twenty-first century lens. Memory is inherently a singular phenomenon, and so Remarque’s novel is best understood as one man’s fictionalized take on the war he fought–and his nation lost–in. Yet ever since its initial publishing, All Quiet has been held up as THE definitive memory of the Great War, and as such it can be worrying when a modern retelling imparts an ironically sanitized version of even a localized part of the conflict. Paul and his comrades’ story is tragic, and one that likely occurred all across the Western Front on both sides of the line, but crucial differences must be conveyed to modern audiences to avoid slipping into vapid “honor both sides for their courage” language. Paul fights for a totalitarian nation who invaded and committed atrocities in a neutral country, implemented brutal ethnic removal and labor policies in the Baltic, invented the use of poison gas on the battlefield, and employed morally dubious unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping. Marshal Foch seems on the verge of saying this during the peace conference, but is limited to only scoffing at the Germans’ request to be treated “fairly.” Instead, the only verifiable war crime witnessed in the film is when the FRENCH summarily execute surrendering German soldiers. Equally as significant for the war’s complicated legacy, Germany did not pursue negotiations to prevent more death; German armies had been largely routed and were streaming back across the Rhine–giving the lie to the film’s final text that the front had “barely moved” in four years. In fact, the German government sued for peace so that they would not see their home territory invaded like they had invaded Belgium, France, and Russia. Any responsible depictions of the First World War in modern media must take these dimensions of the conflict into account, regardless of whose story they wish to tell.
While it may not be good history, Berger’s All Quiet does certainly qualify as a good story, and if viewers can stomach it, its portrayal of snapshots of positional warfare are quite good. As with so much of history, however, one must keep in mind the personal nature of the story being told and consider one facet of many in the perception of its events.