All Quiet on the Western Front
2022, R, 148 min. Directed by Edward Berger. Starring Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Daniel Brühl.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Dec. 30, 2022
All Quiet on the Western Front, Edward Berger’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel Im Westen nichts Neues, begins and ends with a wide, stormy shot of the forest and mountains, effectively setting the tone of his film as bleak. The natural elements emphasize the brutality of the war-torn setting – peacefully sleeping foxes, the shattering crack of lightning, and the sharp sound of icy rain are abruptly interrupted by the ugly sounds of warfare. There are only a handful of scenes that actually take place on the World War I battlefield, but their intensity is overwhelming, as teenage boys dodge bullets, slipping through blood-stained mud, desperately fighting for their lives.
After the stark opening battle, Berger shows the journey of a dead soldier’s uniform. A threatening aura permeates the tone of the film. With its thick dramatic booms, Volker Bertelmann’s score creates an uneasy tension that recalls the main titles from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The apprehension it creates lingers as the film finally introduces its protagonist, German volunteer Paul Bäumer (Kammerer), who grabs the repurposed uniform of the young boy who has died in the opening scene. Paul and his friends get ready to go to war with glee, like they’re on a field trip and not a slow march to their own deaths. They sing a song about love and wine, hyped on war propaganda about the German invasion of France, but their future has been selected for them. “You will be dead by dawn,” a sergeant warns Paul. Although that’s not in the cards for Paul this time, the sergeant’s words echo like a promise throughout Berger’s film.
All Quiet on the Western Front is not just a dark film in its content, but visually as well. The film is drenched in purples, blues, and murky grays, the light only visible to shine on the death and decay of the battlefield. It’s beautiful, haunting, and devastating. Grime cakes the boys’ faces and bodies. Mustard yellow lighting suffocates some of the shots, a horrific foreshadowing of what’s to come. The bodies of the dead are always lingering in the background of the battles, and in a particularly chilling scene a mangled body is discovered dangling from a branch of a tall tree. All Quiet on the Western Front is more grisly, disturbing, and sadistic than any horror movie in 2022. Flamethrowers ignite soldiers, and tanks pulverize the bodies of the dead. It’s a hard film to watch, but Berger’s harsh, cold approach to the anti-war material is a rewarding sit for those who can stomach it.
The film makes it clear that Paul is never meant to survive the savagery of the war. Tyrannical, soulless politicians who gorge on meats, cheeses, and wine dictate his and his friends’ fates. There are no heroes in All Quiet on the Western Front – the film is a musing on the utter devastation of war, and the unnecessary lives lost because of it. In a particularly painful scene to watch, Paul fights for his life against a French soldier. He stabs him, but the soldier’s death is not instant, and Paul has to endure the gurgles of the man choking on his own blood. Paul cannot take it, and tries to stuff mud into his mouth to shut him up, crying and screaming in the process. Then, after sitting and crying in the mud, he tries to clean up the French soldier, help him live, but it’s too late. His tears turn the dried dirt on his face into more mud. It’s a messy, upsetting scene that perfectly captures All Quiet on the Western Front’s ability to balance both the grotesque and sympathetic nature of humanity, as well as the total agony of war. When the film finally ends, the credits roll without sound, a remarkable restraint that leaves the viewer reflecting on what they just witnessed, a solemn testimony to the millions who lost their lives in one of the cruelest wars to ever have been fought.