All Quiet on the Western Front

Year: 2022
Production Co: Amusement Park Films
Director: Edward Berger
Writer: Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, Ian Stokell
Cast: Felix Kammerer

I'm a bit embarrassed to say I had no idea this was a novel back in the interwar years, and that this film is an adaptation of it, not a remake of the 1930 classic.

It's the original war-is-hell tract, when military service was sold as an adventure all red blooded young men should sign up for, not knowing until it was too late they'd come back physically or psychologically broken – if they were lucky enough to come back at all – and that the trench warfare on the plains of Belgium and France was actually a meat grinder.

Along with his friends, Paul Bäumer (Felix Krammerer) falls for the exhortations about duty and honour serving the fatherland against the godless hordes hook, line and sinker.

They're shipped to the front in Flanders and immediately realise what a mistake they've made as shells and bullets explode around them, they slop blood-tinged rainwater out of sopping trenches and the older, more grizzled veterans look at them with scorn and pity.

Before their first battle is even over, one of them will be laying dead, some junior grunt sent around to unclip the ID tags off the bodies so they can try to account for the hundreds they've lost.

The story follows the adventures and misadventures of the boys as they become more entrenched in army life and bogged down by fighting, the occasional shock as another of their number is slaughtered (the tank scene near the end is particularly harrowing).

But the story draws back to focus on several senior officers and government officials trying to decide whether fighting on is a fool's errand.

The gruff General Friedrichs doesn't want to let up for a second, but German State Secretary Matthias Erzberger is more circumspect, wondering how many more thousands of young German men have to die for no real benefit to the country and leading a delegation meeting with French leaders to try and end more bloodshed.

After the first flurry of carnage I lost track of where everyone was to some extent. A year or so after they signed up, Paul and his remaining friends had found their place among veterans who'd served longer and befriended some of them, not exactly enjoying life but certainly experiencing a period of comparative quiet.

But the enemy is always just over the hill, and when Germany finally decides it has no choice but to agree to France's restrictive terms of surrender (terms that humiliated the national character, dismantled German militarism and gave rise to Hitler decades later), things kick up a notch.

Everyone figures it's over. Paul arrives in the smashed remains of a township to find a few of his badly injured comrades and prepares to celebrate.

But the bloodthirsty Friedrichs orders one more attack nobody wants to take part in, and the story ratchets up the urgency even more as the ceasefire approaches, everyone trying to kill as many of the enemy as they can and stay alive until then, and if you know the story you know the tragic outcome of that plan.

The pivotal scene I remember from the first film – of Paul mercilessly butchering the French soldier to death in the muddy bomb crater and then being overcome with remorse for it – is there and as gut wrenching as ever.

Co-writer/ director Edward Berger knows how to stage bloody warfighting action with all the tensions, fear, discomfort and misery World War One was mired in. The production design, staging and cinematography are faultless.

And with all that skill, it might have been a brilliant movie except that Berger falls victim to a few too many hoary old war movie cliches.

When there's a coming attack everyone stops talking and stares fearfully around in a very contrived way to build tension. Also he (in both the script and the direction) makes the mistake of all his characters being poets and philosophers who can articulate the themes of the story and their lot in it like scholars, all of them with a taste for very stagey dramatic pauses.

Even some action sequences are designed and executed because they're going to be in a movie, not because it's what the confusion, shock, urgency and ferocity of military battle really looks like.

I realise that might have all come from the novel, but even so it would have lent some gritty authenticity by not staging several pivotal moments so theatrically.

But the book – and now two films – have been important artistic artifacts in the last century, countering the narrative sponsored by the powers that be because they need cheap cannon fodder for their power struggles, and it makes the film a little bit immune to any criticism about the approach.

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