When it comes to showing the brutal realities of conflict, this new vision of Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel is really not messing about. Shells obliterate soldiers entirely. Men crack under the strain of bombardment. Shell holes become crucibles where human conscience and the sheer urge to survive do battle.
As with Elim Klimov’s traumatic World War II cheese dream Come and See – an anti-war classic with which this German-language movie has drawn unenviable, but not unfair comparisons – Netflix’s lavishly budgeted All Quiet on the Western Front follows one young man through the fire: 18-year-old recruit, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer, excellent). It quickly plunges him into the inferno and watches him morph from eager teen to hollow-eyed combatant.
This version of All Quiet on the Western Front is a less impressionist view of war than Come and See, though – and a leaner, meaner and more savage beast than Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-winning 1930 take on Remarque’s source novel.
Milestone’s masterpiece spanned several years of the war, but the lion’s share of this film happens in its final weeks, with Paul and his equally chipper cohorts joining a defeated army. New weapons are being brought to bear against them: tanks, flamethrowers and the strafing of low-flying fighters, each more horrifying than the last. The frontline is, as one NCO dryly notes, ‘an absolute shithole’.
History nerds will note the strenuous efforts to capture the realities of the conflict, but the film’s use of smart Spielbergian grace notes to share its emotional truths is a real strength, too: we follow a bullet-riddled uniform on a macabre journey as it’s retrieved from the corpse of its previous owner, washed, stitched and passed onto another young recruit back in Germany. A scarf donated by a pretty French girl is passed from soldier to soldier in Paul’s dwindling squad, a leitmotif for another, richer life they’re doomed never to live.
All this is captured by TV veteran Berger (Patrick Melrose, Deutschland 83) with unshowier, but no less impressive craft than Sam Mendes’s one-shot Great War drama 1917. The battle scenes here are wince-inducing on a different scale.
History nerds will note the efforts to capture the conflict’s realities, but the Spielbergian grace notes are a real strength too
The only grumble is the adaptation cuts a bit too deeply into the bones of the book. There are some moving scenes as Paul finds solace in the camaraderie of his mates – incongruously, the best of them plays out on the latrine – but All Quiet on the Western Front would have been an even better movie for letting us know these mud-caked men a little better.
That the spare screen time is given over to two effective subplots – one following Daniel Brühl’s diplomat as he tries to negotiate a ceasefire; the other, a brutish general who hungers to keep the slaughter rolling on – sweetens the pill. Like two Wagnerian forces fighting over Paul’s soul, it’s a metaphor that leaves us with the bleak conclusion: peace has no answer to the mad logic of war.
In UK cinemas Oct 14. Streaming on Netflix worldwide Oct 28