All Quiet on the Western Front, now streaming on Netflix, immediately enters this canon. Director Edward Berger's adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's
1929 book, which was also made into a 1930 film, is an exercise in the miserable. A World War I story told from the perspective of the Imperial German Army, the film gives sympathy to those just following orders, bludgeons us with the hell of war, and … that’s about it.
The story follows 17-year-old Paul Baumer (Felix Cammerer), a naive high-schooler roused to join the Army after hearing a speech about how war is actually about honor, not centuries of Imperialism. Of course, Paul and his fellow recruits don’t know that the uniforms they’re being given are simply the hand-me-downs of the last group of people that ended their patriotic ride to glory losing a limb or their lives. It’s not the first moment that lacks any semblance of subtlety, but there’s still effectiveness to it.
The rest of the film ostensibly follows Paul to the battlefield, with some detours to the German High Command negotiating the end of the War with the Allied Powers. Harrowing doesn’t begin to describe his journey, as he meets nothing but blood, shit, and mud, all to gain about 10 feet of ground on the opposition. War is pointless, the film passionately and incessantly posits. To which the audience answers: Uhhh … yeah?
And, of course, Cammerer is a star. His transformation from energetic to broken, from prideful to cynical is all told through his close-ups, and he nails each one. One particular fight scene against another soldier in a giant crater, the product of one too many bombs, is a masterwork in non-verbal storytelling.
Told from the German perspective, the examination of war as a truly harrowing pursuit may have been revolutionary 90 years ago, but there’s not much to differentiate it from 1917, Come and See, Apocalypse Now, or the dozens of other contemporary war flicks that operate on the same basic principle. Still, maybe it is necessary. Maybe we need the message injected into us once a year, like a flu shot full of mass violence, as we watch Ukraine be invaded by Russia and, once again, forget the humanity behind it.
All Quiet on the Western Front feels like a stunning, expertly told re-packaging of a tried and true idea, a message to us regular people that other regular people always suffer in times like these. Maybe we just need to find a way to get the film in front of some people who aren’t so regular.
All Quiet on the Western Front is now available to stream on Netflix.