All Quiet on the Western Front (film review)

Not for the faint at heart, this 2022 remake of the Erich Maria Remarque book, shows the futility and destruction of World War I. The film scored many awards around the world; a magnificent production, but terribly difficult to watch.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, All Quiet on the Western Front received awards for Best International Film Feature, Best Original Score, Best Production Design and Best Cinematography.

Like the equally harrowing Peter Jackson documentary 1917, All Quiet on the Western Front presents the terrifying and grim consequences of war, especially for the millions of young, idealistic men, who answered their nations’ call to service and were quickly enveloped into a living nightmare of death. This was supposed to be the war to end all wars. More than a century later, war is still war. Very little has changed, except the weapons of killing.

There are many reasons to applaud this film; it’s a haunting, visceral experience, and a reminder that war is a slaughter of innocent and romanticism. Nationalism is a meat grinder of misplaced ideals, of unchained egos and unfulfilled dreams of conquest.

Seventeen million people died in WWI, three million of which perished along the Western Front, a battleground of trenches and scorched earth that moved very little in four years of fighting. Felix Kammerer stars as Paul Bäumer, a young man who enlists to serve the German Fatherland in 1917, more idealistic teenagers sent to the slaughterhouse of the Western Front.

Paul Bäumer

The story follows Paul and his three boyhood friends as they are quickly introduced to the bleakness and savagery of modern war. One of them is killed by artillery the first night. The direction, by Edward Berger, is stark, gritty and shows the realism war, without sensationalizing the carnage beyond the horror that it is. The battle footage is intense; watching men mowed down by machine guns, crushed by tanks, beaten to death with shovels or burned alive would make anyone sick. This happened in World War I. Young men came home destroyed, but this was several wars before PTSD was known or even understood. Berger shows the stark transition from glorious enlistment to the agonizing trauma of combat.

Modern warfare.

World War I became the war of mechanized and chemical extermination. Killing became impersonal and highly efficient. Airplanes dropped bombs and machine gunned from above, tanks chewed up earth and bodies with deadly force, deadly gas killed hundreds at a time, machine guns populated the killing fields with entire army groups, and flamethrowers burned soldiers alive – there was nothing romantic about this grotesque warfare.

Ready to defend the Fatherland.

Paul and his friends are just army grunts, ordered to climb out of the trenches and be part of the human fodder. All the while, an armistice is being negotiated during this last year. There are two scenes that represent the finest points of this film. The film opens with soldiers stripping the dead, sending their uniforms back to be laundered and given to fresh recruits. The second is Paul fighting with a French soldier in a water-filler bomb crater in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Paul repeatedly stabs the other soldier, but he is slow to die, in an agonizingly slow death, while Paul begins to agonize what he’s done, as the soldier hangs onto his last breaths. Paul goes through the man’s uniform, finds his family photo and personal effects, compounding the horror and guilt.

This film is not for everyone. There is nothing really heroic to see, just the underbelly of humanity. All Quiet on the Western Front shows the arrogance of leadership, the depravity of the human race, misplaced patriotism and the nadir of civilization. Paul and his buddies represent millions and millions of young men who believed the lies they were told and sacrificed their lives for no good reason. In the film, the German military is seen as angry and defiant at the armistice, staging one more battle before the ceasefire, the battle that senselessly fed Paul and others to the meat grinder. The train car where the Germans signed the armistice would be the place where Hitler would have the French capitulate some 25 years later. The German defeat would only stir the embers of resentment and the rise of nationalism and the Nazi party.

I recommend this film, but with caution. The Western Front was not quiet, just a stalemate of death, and it’s shown in stark reality.

One thought on “All Quiet on the Western Front (film review)

  1. I plan to watch it one day soon. I am in the middle of writing my family history, and a large part includes my grandfathers fighting in the trenches during WW1 in France. I fear the movie may sublimely affect my story told to me by him, so I will wait until my history is complete, then give it a view.

    Liked by 1 person

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