Thursday, May 25, 2023

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022): A Review



We are now well over a century away from the horrors of the trench wars. As such, we are divorced from the true carnage of the scarred battlefields of Europe as empires battled to the death to create a desert and call it peace. The latest adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is, to my knowledge, the first time that Germans have made a film version of their inglorious defeat. Pity that they opted to shred the novel it is based on with a useless subplot.

As the Great War is coming to its third year, eager German student Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) enlists with his fellow classmates. Pumped up by rhetoric of victory, the students soon learn that war is hell. Moving eighteen months later, these youthful warriors now collect the dog tags of the dead. 

As they fight for the Fatherland, the German High Command begins negotiations for surrender. Leading these negotiations is Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl). The conditions are unconditional surrender from the French, something that the Germans are highly reluctant to accept. While they do, the mad German General Friedrichs (David Striesow) wants his nation's defeat to end on a high note: an attack just before the armistice takes place to claim a German victory. This means one last battle before the bitter end, one that will see one young German youth die right before the beginning of peace.

It is hard to give a review for All Quiet on the Western Front given that I have seen and highly admire the 1930 adaptation. Add to that how I have not read the Erich Maria Remarque novel. As such, I might be at a disadvantage in looking over this adaptation. However, if I looked at All Quiet on the Western Front just on what I saw, I would say that it is a bad film.

First, we have the issue of how director Edward Burger (adapting the novel with Lesley Patterson and Ian Skokell) jumped from Paul's brutal and harrowing war experiences to Erzberger's negotiations. Every time we came close to seeing the dehumanizing effects of war on youth, we have to go back to the dull Erzberger attempting to save face.

That Bruhl played Erzberger as this generally quiet, almost somnambulist figure does not make it better. 

The politics subplot robs All Quiet on the Western Front of any genuine impact. The story, oddly nominated for Adapted Screenplay in my opinion, should focus on these sad young men, robbed of their youth and lives for a useless cause. Instead, we get repeatedly interrupted with haughty Frenchmen telling pathetic Germans off. 

Another poor decision was to throw our doomed heroes in so late in the war. I wondered why these young men, so close to the end of the war, would join now. Yes, it could be part of a large and misguided sense of patriotism. However, part of me also thought that by now, stories of the horrors of the front would have filtered in, making the boys reluctant to go.

Since we do not really interact with or know the young men, the impact their deaths would have had is lost. Seeing them die brutal deaths is still sad, but I think we would have felt the losses more if we had gotten to know them.

Even in moments of genuine shock and horror, we are still kept at a distance. Paul and his mentor Kat (Albrecht Schuch) come upon a group of soldiers who died en masse due to removing their gas masks too soon. It is still horrifying to see that, but as filmed and directed by Berger, it is more clinical than impactful.

Curiously, sometimes the film was almost boring. Fellow trooper Kropp (Aaron Hilmer) speaks French and is able to squire pretty girls, but one wonders what about that is interesting. 

Volker Bertelmann's Oscar-winning score has been highly praised, but it consists mostly of humping three notes repeatedly. I do not know if Bertelmann's insistence of blaring the same three notes to full force is what convinced people that this was great music. It became incessant, grew to pompous and ended as irritating. It, to my mind, will rank among the worst pieces of music to win Best Original Score.

This is not to say that there All Quiet on the Western Front does not have some positives. James Friend's cinematography is visually arresting. There are some appropriately horrifying moments, such as at the final battle where rats and men on fire overwhelm the viewer. The sparseness of No Man's Land, the final night of war, the growing chaos are captured effectively and memorably. 

Still, I think on how All Quiet on the Western Front failed to be about the true horror of war. Instead, it was just there. Nature cares not for battles and dead men, and I ended up not caring about All Quiet on the Western Front


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