It’s been almost a century since the last adaption of the 1929 novel and 1930’s Best Picture Winner WW1 war epic, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Despite the massive toll and devastation WW1 wrought on the world, it is often overshadowed by its successor of WW2, especially in American cinema. It has only been recently with films like “Wonder Woman” and “1917” where filmmakers have decided to go further back, setting their films in this time period. Even more unbelievable is this 2022 adaption is the first one to be directed by a German filmmaker, starring an all-German cast. That’s a pretty big deal for a German-based war novel, and considering it is typically not a perspective most people really want to see, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a daunting task for anyone. Which is probably why it’s been largely untouched since 1930.
Thankfully, director Edward Berger delivers a masterful adaption, one that is as brutal as it is visually stunning. “All Quiet” is a visual cinematic achievement, one that uses expert cinematography and shot composition to display the unimaginable brutality of war. Berger smartly ditches the Hollywood gloss over and plot armor star power ala “Saving Private Ryan” and the aforementioned “1917” to tell a rather taut, harrowing narrative of one young man’s journey through one of the most devastating and violent frontlines. It is purposefully unflinching and bleak in its depictions of death and warfare, but never overindulges in the gore to take you out of things. This is a truly visceral experience, one that immerses you in the heart of No Man’s Land and never lets you look away even for a second. Even if the narrative doesn’t grab you, or you’re still scarred from being forced to read the novel in high school, the film elevates the material for the modern age without ever leaving the time period it is set in.
Its a rather simple story, so if I go on and on about the film’s craftsmanship, it’s only because that is where the film truly shines brightest. In short, “All Quiet” tells the story of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) a young boy who joins the frontlines in 1916 with his friends. They are naively bought into the propaganda of victory, heroism, and patriotism, filled with the lies that they will soon march on Paris within days of them joining and becoming soldiers. Of course, the realities of war immediately destroy their romanticism and delusions, and Paul quickly realizes the truth about warfare: on the front lines of the Western Front, everyone loses no matter who wins, and wearing the clothes of a dead soldier before him, must quickly learn to survive in the merciless world that has crumbled around him.
We’ve most certainly seen this story before, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done like this, on this level of technical mastery. Berger smartly sticks to the heart of the novel despite taking some liberties, and drives home the futility of war itself and the loss everyone suffers. “All Quiet” sets itself further apart by being a German based story, told from a German soldier’s perspective. Berger expertly blurs the lines between sides, demonstrating that on the battle field, soldiers at the whims of powerful men often die for nothing no matter who they are told they are fighting for. There’s no glamour here. It is bleak, brutal, and patient, never straying too far from its primary themes and letting the imagery speak for itself. James Friend’s cinematography is simply divine here, cloaking “All Quiet” is deep shades of grays and blues and dim colors that further elevate the dreariness of war. Friend is so smart to never give it that Hollywood shine, and the less pristine each frame looks, the more impactful it becomes.
Absolutely nothing in “All Quiet” is glamorized, and these bold choices allow viewers to truly connect with Paul’s experience. We see the hope and romanticism drain from his eyes with each passing second of life in war, and every single piece of filmmaking services this harrowing experience. It helps that Kammerer is at the top of his game as a performer here, and he aids the audience in wanting to follow his journey all the way to the end, even if it means ending in hopelessness. I don’t think it’s spoiling a near 100 year old story to say that nothing good happens to anyone in “All Quiet,” and that’s by design of both the source material and this current adaption. This is a war epic who’s primary goal is being anti-war, never once feeding the military machine of glory and heroism. War (UH!) isn’t good for absolutely nothing, even when it may be necessary. “All Quiet on the Western Front” forces us to reckon with these realities, and serves as a reminder that this tale is truly timeless and we still haven’t outlived its message nor have we fully learned from our past mistakes.
Lastly, there’s the brilliant score by german pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann, known as Hauschka. The only thing we may recognize him from is his work on “The Old Guard,” but there isn’t all that much that stands out about that film or score. Here though, you will absolutely remember the score for “All Quiet.” Hauschka delivers a haunting, 3 note repetition as the score’s foundation, which once again adds even more to the the mastery of the filmmaking. It never overwhelms the film, and lets things breath when it needs to, beautifully following the trajectory of the story and matching the overall experience. It swells and calms on the journey’s terms, and delivers another gorgeous layer to an incredible well made film. You will absolutely remember the film’s three note opening of “The Remains” and look forward to its many iterations throughout.
Overall, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a masterful adaption of a timeless story, one that delivers powerful visuals and an unforgettable war epic. Look for this one to be all over the technical awards come awards season next year, and will certainly be a strong candidate for Best International Film. I don’t know that it can beat the likes of “Decision to Leave” or “RRR,” but man those three are enough to make the international nominees some of the best we’ve had in years. I would highly recommend seeing “All Quiet on the Western Front” in theaters if you can. It does just fine at home, but this is such an immersive viewing experience, a huge silver screen is sure to enhance your movie watching experience.
This is a great one, folks. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is remakes done right.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix. You can watch the trailer below.