Ukraine in Hindsight

Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front, Edward Berger’s astoundingly brutal adaptation of Eric Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel about World War I – the favourite to win this year’s Best International Film Oscar – is timely to a degree that would have been hard to imagine when the project began.

Always the same war.

The German title, Im Westen nichts Neues – “Nothing new in the West” – conveys this with painful irony. The developments of the past year, in which Europe has slid dangerously close to catastrophe, may feel new since few people who remember World War II and its immediate aftermath are alive.

But this apparent novelty is a ruse. For all of the self-congratulatory discourse that filled the western half of the continent during the postwar boom years, it has become abundantly clear that the lessons of modern warfare did not become hard-wired after all.

Far too many people outside the war zone have treated it as a kind of sporting event, self-righteously promoting colours they do not intend to die for.

Media coverage further romanticises the war by describing it in heroic terms. We are presented with statistics to support an argument about who is winning rather than confronting the savagery they elide.

All Quiet on the Western Front reminds us that war leads to countless suffering, in the most literal sense, because we lack a way of quantifying its full impact.

One of the film’s most disturbing scenes follows its protagonist Paul Bäumler and his comrades as they mount a futile assault on the French lines, then are forced to retreat through a hellscape of barbed wire, tanks, and flamethrowers.

At first, Paul seems numb to the experience. He kills one French soldier in hand-to-hand combat during his company’s assault, then attacks another after becoming separated from his company during the retreat, stabbing him repeatedly. When the Frenchman refuses to die, though, Paul starts to comprehend the horror of what he has done. He tries to ignore the man’s sounds of struggle. Then he relents and, instead of finishing the man off, gives him water and examines his wound.

Throughout this sequence, by looking into Paul’s eyes – thanks to Felix Kammerer’s fine acting – we can witness a kind of conversion as he transforms from a machine back into a man.

That aspect of the story comes through clearly in the two previous adaptations, both in English, and is integral to the novel itself. What sets this new version apart is its visceral intensity. Berger communicates the power of war to dehumanise even a sensitive soul like Paul by subjecting viewers to one shock after another.

All Quiet on the Western Front refuses to let viewers get their bearings. During the first half hour, the storytelling feels both halting and rushed. It’s hard to identify the principal characters, which also makes it hard to identify with them. Even after All Quiet on the Western Front settles into a groove, the lack of transition between scenes keeps threatening to dislodge it. The filmmakers clearly set out to capture the radical juxtapositions that characterize modern warfare: between chaos and calm, panic and numbness, destruction and survival.

The film’s focus on liminal spaces is particularly impressive, where the front fragments into a patchwork of possibilities. Our protagonist Paul and his mentor Kat sneak into a farmyard and steal a goose, then return for a second attempt at theft near the end of the film. Paul’s childhood friend Franz sees three French girls walking across a field near his platoon’s camp and rushes out to flirt, oblivious to the fact that they are supposedly his enemies. He then spends the night with one of them, who gives him her scarf as a keepsake.

Even though the characters can die at any moment, as the picture’s references to long-range artillery make clear, they find inventive ways to keep on living along the margins of that grim prospect.

The horrors of World War I were made worse by a failure of vision. Few people in positions of leadership could see beyond the limits of their training, which had been rendered hopelessly obsolete by advances in weaponry.
 All Quiet on the Western Front confronts this problem both directly and obliquely.

The former approach is exemplified by a scene in which a general expresses contempt for social democracy before declaring his intention to send more troops to the front, even though peace negotiations are underway.

Although his order will lead to many more needless deaths, the general can’t perceive another way to act. “What is a soldier without war?” he later asks while dining extravagantly.

The film underscores this strategic blindness by showing us how hard it is for anybody to see what is happening at a granular level. Sometimes the darkness is to blame; sometimes, it’s the blinding lights that pierce it, and sometimes the gas masks that make it impossible to see.

That’s why it’s perversely appropriate that the first of the story’s four childhood friends to die is Ludwig, who wears glasses.

Paul, the last to go, makes it all the way to the ceasefire at 11 AM on 11 November, only to die as the result of a wound he gets during his final battle. Survival is for leaders, not the men who they treat like pawns on a chessboard.

It’s worth noting how this film differs from the novel. We don’t get to see the home front. The impact of Paul’s dying on a day of peace, when there is “nothing new” on the Western Front, is muted by the fact that his final battle so closely resembles the previous one in which he stabbed the soldier to death.

The point of this adaptation seems to be to inspire shell shock in viewers rather than to give them the opportunity to reflect on what the novel’s quieter passages make possible. In this regard, Berger’s film reflects the media ecology from which it emerged, in which the barrage of bad news never lets up. Whether that makes it a more effective anti-war film for our times is uncertain.

What is clear is that All Quiet on the Western Front provides an opportunity to reflect on the war preoccupying Europeans right now in a different manner than news coverage. In underscoring how much the French and Germans have in common, the film can have a profound impact.

Not only on perceptions of the Allies’ one-time enemy but of Russia today and the tens or possibly even hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have lost their lives fighting a proxy war between the West and the leader of the former Eastern Bloc.

Screenshot courtesy of Netflix. All rights reserved.