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All Quiet on the Western Front

Penned almost a century ago, Erich Maria Remarque's famous anti-war novel gets its first German-language film adaptation — and it's stunning.
By Sarah Ward
October 13, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
October 13, 2022
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UPDATE, October 28, 2022: All Quiet on the Western Front opened in Australian cinemas on October 13 and streams via Netflix from October 28.

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War makes meat, disposable labour and easy sacrifices of us all. In battles for power, as they always are, bodies are used to take territory, threaten enemies and shed blood to legitimise a cause. On the ground, whether in muddy trenches or streaming across mine-strewn fields, war sees the masses rather than the individuals, too — but All Quiet on the Western Front has always been a heartbreaking retort to and clear-eyed reality check for that horrific truth. Penned in 1928 by German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque, initially adapted for the screen by Hollywood in 1930 and then turned into a US TV movie in 1979, the staunchly anti-war story now gets its first adaptation in its native tongue. Combat's agonies echo no matter the language giving them voice, but Edward Berger's new film is a stunning, gripping and moving piece of cinema.

Helming and scripting — the latter with feature first-timers Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell — All My Loving director Berger starts All Quiet on the Western Front with a remarkable sequence. The film will come to settle on 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (astonishing debutant Felix Kammerer) and his ordeal after naively enlisting in 1917, thinking with his mates that they'd be marching on Paris within weeks, but it begins with a different young soldier, Heinrich Gerber (Jakob Schmidt, Babylon Berlin), in the eponymous region. He's thrust into the action in no man's land and the inevitable happens. Then, stained with blood and pierced by bullets, his uniform is stripped from his body, sent to a military laundry, mended and passed on. The recipient: the eager Paul, who notices the past wearer's name on the label and buys the excuse that it just didn't fit him. No one dares waste a scrap of clothing — only the flesh that dons it, and the existences its owners don't want to lose.

Paul's parents are against him signing up with the Imperial German Army, but his pals Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer, The Island), Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus, Die Chefin) and Ludwig Behm (Adrian Grünewald, also The Island) are doing it, so he's soon forging a signature and receiving his pre-used uniform. You could say that the high schooler and his friends get the shock of their lives once they make it to the front, because they do; however, as the Germans and the French keep tussling over a ridiculously small stretch, making zero impact upon the greater war in the process, Paul and company's lives — shocks and all — couldn't be more expendable. In the unit's first big push, the teenagers' numbers already diminish. Building upon the movie's potent opening, Berger ensures that nothing about war remains romanticised in their gaze. Call it hell, call it a nightmare, call it a senseless throwing away of innocent life and a needless robbing of the future: they all fit.

Eighteen months later in November 1918, All Quiet on the Western Front moves to Paul and his compatriots behind the trenches. Trying to survive is still their only aim, and any sense of excitement, passion, enthusiasm and patriotism for their service has long dissipated. Sometimes, with the older and brotherly Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch, Berlin Alexanderplatz), making it through the day involves attempting to steal food from French farms. Sometimes, it means looking for new recruits who haven't shown up. When orders come as they unavoidably do, though, the front is inescapable. Alongside 1917, All Quiet on the Western Front proves a masterclass in conveying armed conflict's relentlessness, terror and futility — from a first-person perspective, and also via lengthy, unbroken, like-you're-there shots steeped in gut- and heart-wrenching wartime brutality.

Every second of Berger's feature is harrowing, even its quiet moments of tender camaraderie — including one while sharing a bog over a communal log — and its gleaming glimpses of nature's beauty. Lensed by cinematographer James Friend (Your Honor), the latter would do Terrence Malick proud; his A Hidden Life, about an IRL Austrian farmer-turned-conscientious objector in the Second World War, would make a striking companion piece to this. Inevitability lingers over All Quiet on the Western Front as well, whether or not you've read the novel or seen previous screen versions. Either knowing or predicting where Paul's WWI torment goes doesn't make everything that eventuates any less distressing, but puts viewers in the same position as the officials pulling the strings away from the front lines. The leaders sending their men to their deaths mightn't be distraught, but the watching audience is.

In a significant departure from the source material, All Quiet on the Western Front spends time with some of those head honchos: politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl, The King's Man), who endeavours to convince German High Command that an armistice is the only move available amid such mounting casualties; and General Friedrich (Devid Striesow, The Last Execution), who sees a ceasefire as treason. Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montalembert, Heartstopper) isn't willing to allow any saving face either way, giving the Germans a 72-hour deadline to accept a deal as is — and that's more than enough time for more troops to meet thoroughly escapable ends. While Berger's decision to balance the on-the-ground onslaught with behind-the-scenes manoeuvring builds in moments of respite for his viewers, that occurs viscerally rather than emotionally. Anguish still radiates, as it must, as every passing minute means more soldiers slaughtered.

Germany's submission for the 2023 Best International Feature Oscar, All Quiet on the Western Front is a film haunted: by the callous disregard for human lives by power-seekers far removed from any fatal consequences, the wide-eyed fervour and blind faith with which boys pledge themselves to war, the desperation and fear that ripples in the thick of the fray, and oh-so-much death. Its ominous and foreboding score by Volker Bertelmann (Ammonite), often repeating a handful of notes, is equally tortured; neither watching nor listening is an easy experience. Viewing a movie pales in comparison to enduring everything this one depicts, of course, but all that bloodshed, and the evocative performances behind the bleeding, is impossible to forget. Almost a century after it first hit the page, this tale has lost none of its power, urgency or relevance — an indictment upon humanity that Berger's iteration silently but clearly stresses.

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