All Quiet on the Western Front – A Gut Punch Focus on War (4*)

A German production, All Quiet on the Western Front re-adapts the 1928 novel of the same name, adding some distinctive scenes and commentary to the story of a young German man, and his friends, thrust onto the “Western Front” to fight the French in the final months of World War I. Accompanied by some stunning cinematography, dominating sound and music, and visceral visual effects, the film reaches new heights in presenting the horror of war. It also adds another, very important message about how events are felt differently depending on where you stand on the social ladder.
All Quiet on the Western Front
2023 Oscar Nominees

All Quiet on the Western Front: Where to Watch:

Stream: Netflix

All Quiet on the Western Front: The Oscar Buzz

Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture

Adapted Screenplay (Berger/Paterson/Stokell)

Cinematography (James Friend) – WINNER

Visual Effects (Petzold/Muller/Frank/Jaffar)

Production Design (Christian M. Goldbeck/Ernestine Hipper) – WINNER

Makeup & Hairstyling (Heike Merker/Linda Eisenhamerova)

Sound (Prasil/Kruse/Stemler/Ginzel/Korte)

Original Score (Volker Bertelmann) – WINNER

International Feature – WINNER

This movie has the third highest Oscar Quality Index (OQI) of all 25 of this year’s general interest movies with nine nominations, the same number as Banshees of Inisherin.  What makes those two films very different is that only three of those nominations were in the major categories, which suggests, and is confirmed by the viewing, that it excels in the presentation a bit more than it does in the story-telling.  It was nominated in the special-interest International Feature category, and I suspect it will have no trouble claiming that Oscar, and I also suspect it will win the Adapted Screenplay Oscar.   I predict that it will likely also take the Sound, Visual Effects, and Production Design Oscars because good war movies usually do well in those categories.

All Quiet on the Western Front: The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One 

(and if you like these films, you might like this one):

(Coming from Germany, there aren’t nearly as many tree roots that us Americans are going to recognize.  I’ve dug up a few, but, in general, this will be new ground for American movie and TV viewers.  I couldn’t find anything the four main character actors had done that I recognize.) 

Deutschland 83 (15 – a German TV show): Director – Edward Berger; Editing – Sven Budelman

Alien vs Predator (04) and Snowpiercer (13): Visual Effects – Kamil Jaffar; Makeup & Hairstyling – Linda Eisenhamerova

Cloud Atlas (12): Sound – Kruse/Stemler/Ginzel; Makeup & Hairstyling: Heike Merker

Tar (22): Production Design – Ernestine Hipper

All Quiet on the Western Front: What Others Think

Ratings for All Quiet on the Western Front vary quite a bit among both general audiences and critics, so drawing conclusions is difficult.  Using the averages of scales that I look at, general viewers tended to rate this movie higher than critics did, but overall it came in ninth among the 25 general interest movies, below both the Banshees of Inisherin and Everything Everywhere All at Once.  Critics, focusing on specific details of the movie as well as its overall, visceral effects, tended to find fault either with its fidelity to the novel or the use of modern-day high-technology to enhance the horrific war scenes.  Glenn Kenny (RogerEbert) wrote that the “…filmmakers have arguably lost the plot, turning “war is hell” into a “can you top this?” Competition.”  And Ben Kenigsberg (New York Times) adds that “..those (technical) advantages somehow make this update less impressive: The magnification in scale and dexterity lends itself to showing off.  Still…it’s hard not to be rattled by that.” On the other hand, Leigh Singer, of Sight&Sound, a European reviewer notes that “…this German take on the source material is full of intelligent references and inversions that expand on Remarque’s humanist plea.”  In short, your reaction to All Quiet on the Western Front is likely to depend on how you feel about war movies in general and also how important it is for a movie to adhere to its source material.

All Quiet on the Western Front: Special Mention

Prior WorkAll Quiet on the Western Front was, originally, a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German (despite the French-sounding last name) who was inspired by his own experiences as a German soldier in World War I.  The book was published in 1928 and the original German title is literally translated as “Nothing New in the West”.  That refers to the fact that, although it generated massive amounts of casualties, very little ever changed about the conflict between the French and the Germans on this front (see World War I below). 

Just two years later, the book was made into a movie, of the same name, directed by Lewis Milestone.  The picture won the Best Picture Oscar for 1930 and Milestone won for Best Director, and, like this one, it was also nominated for its Adapted Script and Cinematography.  It had no music, but was one of the first “talkie” movies to gain popular appeal, despite its violence and gory deaths, which weren’t restricted on the screen until a few years later.

Both the book and the movie were banned by the Nazis in Germany and some neighboring countries just a few years later as being anti-war and, especially, anti-German.  These facts make the production of this film especially poignant since it is coming from a German production company and the battle scenes were filmed in the Czech Republic.

There was a 1979 TV movie of the same name and subject starring Richard Thomas, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Pleasance. It did win an editing Emmy and received six other Emmy nominations.  But, especially with a PG-14 rating, it isn’t comparable to either the 1930 movie or this one.

(I confess to never having read the book nor seen either of the previous film/TV works.)

World War I (WWI): The war raged for more than four years from end of July, 1914 until November 11, 1918.  Since even I was not around then, I had to do some research to refresh my understanding of this world event.  In simple terms, it started over the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne.  For reasons I don’t understand, Serbia was held responsible, and war was declared on Serbia.  Russia came to the defense of Serbia, and then everybody piled on either side creating the Allies (France, UK, Russia, Italy, Japan, and, finally, the US) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire).  Fighting broke out around the world,  in Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Ocean.

The war was one of the deadliest events in human history, although the total number of casualties depends on how you count them.  At least 9 million soldiers were killed and 23 million more were wounded.  More than 5 million civilians died, as the conflict couldn’t be contained to just between military forces.  It is also clear that the war set the stage for the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and so some estimates of the true cost of the conflict range up to 40 million human beings.  

The German strategy, initiated in 1914, was to win a quick victory against the French, on the German Western front, and then turn their resources against, what they thought, was the more formidable Russians on the Eastern front.  They, apparently, underestimated the French, and overestimated the Russians.  The French managed to hold the Germans pretty much in-place along a line of trenches stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland.  The fact that neither side was able to gain any ground, and there was no real change, is why there was “No News on the Western Front” despite massive numbers of casualties from the trench warfare employing flamethrowers, gas canisters, and other weapons that have since been “outlawed” in so-called “modern warfare”.

The massive Russian casualties on the Eastern front helped contribute to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia which changed regimes and made peace with the Central Powers in early 1918.  Germany immediately switched its attention from the Eastern to the Western Front and sought to conquer France before US troops arrived.  

This essentially describes the situation as the movie starts.  The film covers the events, from the perspective of a young German conscript from the start of that second initiative to conquer France until its ending with the Armistice of November 11, 1918.

All Quiet on the Western Front: Michael’s Moments

Some reviewers have commented on how this new German version on the novel has strayed from the original source to include less-than-positive references to the French.  There are scenes in the movie related to a French family, raising a goose or two, where the behavior of one of the children is portrayed in an unflattering, and definitely not childlike manner.  And there is another set of scenes where the Germans, suffering incredibly unbearable losses, are facing negotiations with a French commander who offers no compassion and no forgiveness to the Germans – he even serves them stale croissants.  As I understand it, neither of those actions are in the original novel nor in the 1930 film.  So I can, somewhat, understand the critical reaction to those scenes being there, implying that Germany wasn’t the only bad player in this war – that everyone was guilty of inhumane behavior.  While many people do not want to relieve any guilt from Germany, some have argued that it was the extremely unfavorable treatment of the Germans in WWI that led to the rise of the Nazis and the resulting WWII.  So the German production here may have some important perspectives.

But I’m less interested in that aspect of the movie than another theme that these “additional scenes” introduce – the extreme difference between the lives of the generals and the soldiers in the trenches.  

When Paul and Kat steal a goose from the French farmer, they are doing so because they are very hungry, having survived on stale bread and whatever else they can scrounge from their wet, cold, muddy surroundings.  The stealing of that goose comes back to haunt them. There is a terrific brief scene near the end of the movie where Paul (the main character) and a couple of his buddies, enter a French trench bunker.  There they find some of the simple pleasures that the French military has been able to provide, like fresh food and wine – pleasures the Germans have been denied while miles from their homeland.  

Still, neither the extreme paucity of pleasure for the Germans, nor the modest buffet of the French, compares at all with the feasts we see that the higher-in-command are enjoying.  The movie makes considerable effort to point out what and how the French and German diplomats, negotiating the Armistice, eat their meals on the trains, on the way to and during their negotiations.  Notice the opulently set tables and dinnerware and the exquisite food, piled high and beautifully served.  The men who are negotiating the end of the war have, and probably have had, a luxurious life compared to those who have, miraculously, survived the war that their leaders initiated.

More seriously is the behavior of a German general, Friedrichs, who manages, due to some unresolved Freudian “father issues” to cause untold chaos and unnecessary deaths in what everyone knew was the last 15 minutes of the war.  It isn’t clear whether this part of the movie is in the book or not, but it forms the basis for the last 30 minutes of the movie and its harrowing conclusion.  But what is important is not how screwed up this man’s psyche was, but rather how he was able to live a life that precluded him from ever understanding what he was doing to those under his command.  We see him multiple times in the movie and in almost every one of those scenes, he is eating something.  Contrast his meals with those of Paul and his buddies – hungry if not starving.  

If anyone thinks this is what happened a century ago and we’re far from that now, then they should pay more attention to the news coming out of Ukraine.  Recently Russia called up several hundred thousand more citizens to serve in their assault on their neighboring country.  Many of these “recruits” were taken from Russia’s massive prison population and forced into the army of private fighters called the Wagner group.  They were then forced to go to the front with minimal training and were intentionally directed to attack various spots probing for weaknesses in the Ukrainian defenses.  They were killed by the hundreds and buried quickly – today’s equivalent of “cannon fodder”.  The leader of the Wagner group is a billionaire oligarch friend of Putin, who no-doubt enjoys fine caviar and vodka while his mercenaries die by the dozens every day and enjoy army rations.  Just how many wars would there be if the people who wage them actually had to fight them?

All Quiet on the Western Front

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