Netflix's new take on the classic World War I story.
From the original 1929 text to a new high-dollar remake, Dr. Chris Juergens takes a closer look at what is an anything-but-unremarkable anti-war story.
Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details about the films and the book, but don’t let that deter you from diving in!
The end of October saw the release of a long-awaited new treatment of the anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front—told, for the first time, from the perspective of a German director and production. While it made for an impressive war movie about the horrors of World War I, it was a poor homage to the literary bestseller.
The interwar years were a turbulent time in Europe, and everyday Germans wrestled with the legacy and costs of the First World War that had left their society in tatters. Questions about the war—and particularly about Germany’s “war guilt” that had been a major justification for the oppressive Treaty of Versailles—were central to the political discourse of the day. A common trope emerged in which German veterans were celebrated for their heroism, while politicians were accused of having “stabbed Germany in the back” by agreeing to an unconditional armistice. The treaty was hated across the political spectrum, but there was violent disagreement about the correct path into Germany’s future. In the middle of these debates, thirty-year-old Erich Maria Remarque published a serialized novel about a soldier’s experience in the war, which was shortly thereafter released in book form.
All Quiet on the Western Front was informed by Remarque’s own experience as a soldier in the war. The central character, Paul Bäumer, reflects on his experiences while stationed in the trenches of the western front. He and his classmates had volunteered for the army in 1914, urged on by the patriotic speeches of their schoolmaster. Training had been difficult and taxing, not least due to the tyranny of their drill instructor. At the front, Paul’s friends are wounded and killed one by one, including his older friend and mentor, Katczinsky. Paul’s reflections end as he contemplates life after the war while recovering from a poison gas attack; he fears that his generation will not be able to re-adjust to civilian life. An anonymous narrator finishes the novel by noting that Paul was killed in action in October 1918, roughly a month before the end of the war. That day was so unremarkable along the front line, that the official report was limited to “nothing new to report in the West” (an allusion to Im Westen nichts Neues, the German title of the book).
It became an instant bestseller. Translated immediately into multiple foreign languages, it was especially well received in the United States. Merely a year later, the story premiered on the silver screen. Directed by Lewis Milestone, this 1930 film is still widely considered one of the best pieces of American cinema (it even won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director that year). In 1979, a joint British-American production won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for its TV-movie based on the book. Both these versions attempted to consolidate the most essential qualities and episodes from the novel into (albeit lengthy) films, staying largely faithful to the original material.
Despite the book’s initial popularity in its home country, its legacy in Germany was complicated. In the cauldron of German politics in the 1930s, it was decried as unpatriotic and banned by the new Nazi government. Though now recognized as a literary classic, no attempt was made to bring the work to film in a German studio—until nearly 100 years later. Armed with the considerable resources of Netflix, director Edward Berger celebrated his historic opportunity to, finally, bring a German perspective to the story in 2022.
While the production values are high, the acting is generally good, and there are many excellent scenes portraying the horrors and chaos of fighting on the western front, Berger’s is a disappointing treatment of Remarque’s book. While a few characters' names remain, nearly every plot point is changed. Most perplexing is the choice to begin the story in 1917 and shift almost immediately to November 1918. The arduous training referenced numerous times in the book is completely absent, while the schoolmaster’s iconic speech falls well outside the original 1914 timing, when such blind enthusiasm could be found among all the nations gearing up for war.
Perhaps the biggest change is in the story’s relationship to the title of the work. Instead of Paul’s death falling on an unremarkable day of misery at the front, Berger instead embraces an alternative interpretation of the English title and has Paul killed in a final, pointless assault within minutes of the end of the war. Here, All Quiet seems to refer to the abrupt end of fighting on November 11, rather than the brutally casual nature of death in the original, in which there was “nothing new to report.”
Despite these shortcomings, the material culture (weapons, uniforms, etc.) is well done, and it is refreshing to see the First World War get some much-needed attention in the public sphere. If you are looking for a film to showcase some of the horrors of trench warfare, then Berger’s vision is a good choice. If you're looking for a treatment closer to Remarque’s original story, it's best to look to the older attempts to tell this story.