Political Film Review #661


The 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, has now been made a third time. The actual German title is Im Westen Nichts Neues, translated as “In the West Nothing New.” An anti-war film, the book was burned after Hitler went to power. The first film version appeared in 1930. The second was a television film in 1979. Each version has a different angle, and the 2022 film is likely to make a particular impact in view of the release after the beginning of the Ukraine War, which is now portrayed on television in a sanitized manner. Directed by Edward Berger, the film is the first of the three in German with English subtitles.

In all three versions, the film focuses on new German recruits who are sent to the trenches and experience shock at what happens, something that audiences will find horrifying.  Actual combat is gruesome, but there are many other horrendous elements—hunger for food, thirst for water, filthy soldier uniforms, trenches filled with rats and mud, faces covered with multiple layers of dirt, bleeding soldiers unable to move, women re-sewing damaged uniforms previously worn by dead soldiers, dead bodies strewn over the landscape, collecting ID tags of dead soldiers, understaffed hospitals apportioning care to those deemed survivable, numerous coffins being filled and transported, and music with an Armageddon tone.

The film begins in early 1918. Young men eagerly line up before recruitment tables and receive their battlefront uniforms, having just reached the age of 18. Innocent-appearing Paul Bäumer (played by Felix Kammerer), who is 17 and has lied about his age, discovers someone else’s name in his unform; not realizing that he has received a dead soldier’s uniform, he tries to return the uniform to the officer at the table, who in turn rips off the name and gives the uniform back to him. Paul then links up with his high school friends in the same squad who are assembled to hear an officer’s speech that is intended to fire up their nationalistic enthusiasm for battle with references to German superiority; he indicates that they will eventually march triumphant into Paris. When the speech ends, they break out with big smiles and loud cheers. Paul then goes to a trench, engages in battles with no gain in territory, and miraculously survives while one after another of his buddies become casualties of the “war to end all wars.”

The novel and the previous films feature an R&R experience, where Paul has difficulty coping with “normal life” because the public is unaware of conditions of battle and believe that he is a coward. The 2022 version is quite different, focusing on the top brass of the German army who are unconcerned with how many soldiers are dying, notably the regional commander of units near Champagne, France. He gives commands for useless battles while housed in an elegant headquarters eating real food in contrast with the turnip bread diet on the front. On one day in early November, German civilian and military leaders meet their French counterparts, seeking an armistice. The French, knowing that 250,000 Americans are arriving to join the war daily, have prepared an agreement that the German commanders consider a surrender rather than an armistice. German Vice-Chancellor Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) ties to persuade the German generals, pointing out that some Germans and not obeying orders and too many are dying, but the generals will not sign for reasons unclear until Paul’s squad leader, Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), one day confesses that his father was a hero, having fought in three previous wars won by Germany and now he will return home in defeat to a country that will not understand why. After Kaiser Wilhelm abdicates, French and German high officials meet again. Erzberger pleads for some form of mercy, but the French will not budge. The agreement is signed, specifying 11a.m. on November 11 as the time when the war will end. Angered that treasonous Social Democrats are responsible for the agreement, the regional commander orders his troops to win a final victory, starting at 10:45. Another battle ensues, initially taking the French by surprise. But soon their tanks roll to stop the advance. When 11:00 arrives, the word is spread to stop, but the soldiers are too exhausted to cheer with any enthusiasm, and efforts to clear the battlefield of dead soldiers commences routinely as if the armistice might be called off. Regarding Paul, who is part of the final offensive, one must see the film to determine his fate.

Titles at the end indicate the number of casualties and the fact that the armies had failed to advance on either side for four years. The Political Film Society has nominated All Quiet on the Western Front as the best film of 2022 raising consciousness about the need for world peace.  MH

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