Early on during Edward Berger’s 2022 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, a fresh recruit complains that his hands are numb. Around him, veteran soldiers use their helmets to bail water out of the flooding trench. One of them tells the newbie to stick his hands down his pants to keep them warm.
The resulting image —— dumbstruck teenagers in a masturbatory pose against a pointless flood-prevention effort —— provides the perfect visual metaphor for World War I, a conflict that left 20 million or so dead without much territory taken by either side.
As conflicts go, the Great War was particularly inane. I’ve read entire books on WWI and still have no idea what they were fighting about. Yes, yes, Archduke Franz Ferdinand got shot, but whose side was he on anyway? It was, to quote Woodrow Wilson, “a stupid fucking war that made no sense to anyone.”
Yet as the credits rolled, I found myself wondering not just about the point of the war but also about the point of this most recent film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel. It was excellent, but was it necessary?
The novel is a seminal work of pacifism; its quick adaptation into a 1930 Oscar-winning film coincided with a surge in American isolationism. The Nazis found its anti-war narrative out of keeping with their territorial ambitions —— they terrorized movie theaters that showed the film and, when they came to power, burned copies of the book.
America’s involvement in World War II provided something of a reprieve from pacifist narratives in cinema. The 1940s and 50s were the heyday of patriotic war films, playing off of the assumed black-and-white nature of WWII heroes and villains. Nazis are unsympathetic targets (which is why all the best Indiana Jones movies feature them).
Vietnam was less cut and dry, and so the 1970s and 80s were stacked with darker takes on warfare’s damage to the human psyche, including The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon.
That’s pretty much been the dominant strain of war film for the past 50 years. With several notable exceptions, war films these days are very anti-war. (To find a pro-war film, go to a Marvel movie.) All of which means that the horror experienced by the protagonists in All Quiet has become fairly standard. We know war is hell. Do we need to be reminded of it?
My tentative answer is: yes. Though it appears on Netflix internationally, this wasn’t an American production, but a German one —— the first German adaptation of the novel, which was written by a German soldier. Berger’s alterations to the source text, in which he intercuts the behind-the-scenes armistice deliberations, work to explain the origins of the Second World War. They also drive home the arbitrariness of the rules of violence.
Most importantly, it’s the first 15 minutes or so that make the film indelible. Without much dialogue and assisted with a score that might’ve been pulled out of a Christopher Nolan movie, Berger shows just how dispensable and interchangeable war makes individuals.
That alone distinguishes the film from those that have come before it. Those 15 minutes, you might say, get straight to the point.