A war. An older officer entrusting his men with a crucial mission that will change, if not the course of the conflict, then certainly lives. Rugged patriotic soldiers embarking on a harrowing journey. Numerically superior, dastardly enemy combatants fighting for the wrong cause. If the director is feeling particularly adventurous, the death of one of the heroic protagonists marking the emotional climax and motivating his comrades to fulfill the objective and avenge their dead friend.
That’s more or less the makings of any traditional blockbuster Hollywood war film. Some directors try to spice things up — think Sam Mendes with “1917” or Steven Spielberg with his cult classic “Saving Private Ryan.” But try as they might to break with the mold — usually with hectoliters of fake blood and gorefest — they fail miserably. Sure, their depictions of wars might be nasty affairs, but they are never a futile waste of life. At the end of the day, the protagonists and their actions contribute to something.
Edward Berger’s 2022 “All Quiet on the Western Front,” an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, is not that kind of film.
Three minutes into the movie, a shell-shocked conscript, Heinrich, is forced to join an assault on enemy positions. Confused and utterly terrified, he is killed mere yards away from his trenches. When we meet the protagonist, Paul Bäumer — reissued Heinrich’s uniform collected from the dead body, cleaned, mended, and still with the previous man’s name — one thing becomes clear: This is a film about war as it really is, devoid of the propagandistic heroism and glory.
There is no hope or purpose to be found in Berger’s war, a point he drives home with brutal eloquence and striking visuals throughout.
The frontline intertwines moments of seeming normalcy with scenes of hell on earth. The soldiers are ordinary people cooking soup and cracking jokes until they have no choice but to get mowed down by machine gun fire, be rolled over — in a gut-wrenching five minute sequence — by tanks unstoppably creeping through the battlefield, and get incinerated by the enemy flamethrowers. That is, if they manage to get to the frontline in the first place, avoiding death in a gas attack at a train station, not having realized it’s too early to take the gas masks off.
Berger skilfully weaves opulent German high command chambers into the battlefield horror, reinforcing the futility of the situation and showing that the reason behind the bloodshed is not a burning desire to protect the country, but the pride and personal ambition of bureaucrats divorced from reality. The generals are well aware of the hopelessness of the situation: In fact, halfway through, they sign an armistice. But still they throw thousands into the meat grinder for “honor.”
To put it briefly, the film’s violence is repulsive and at times almost unbearable. But it is never gratuitous. It’s not a mere obstacle in the way of the protagonists, not a mere facet of war, irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The bloodshed, loss of life, futility — this is Berger and Remarque’s war. Nobody is in the right and nobody will emerge victorious.
To say that “All Quiet on the Western Front” is an anti-war film would do it a disservice. It is a war film in the fullest sense of the word. The Academy would be right to acknowledge its bold vision and poignant depiction of Remarque’s idea that “death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.”
—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at email@example.com