Review | “All Quiet on the Western Front” captures the horrors of war, but not without flaws

Edward Berger’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel of the same name, released on Netflix Oct. 28. The film captures the shock of WWI horror, but it misses the mark on requirements to be a great film.

Colin Votzmeyer, News Reporter

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a German epic film that accurately, although not flawlessly, captures the terror and pain of World War I.

The film, released to Netflix streaming on Oct. 28, is an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, and a remake of Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film, both of the same name. Edward Berger steps on to direct his own version of the story of a German soldier who quickly finds that the horrors of WWI were not what he was expecting.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film is also Germany’s submission to the 2023 Academy Awards for best international feature film. 

Within just the first few minutes, viewers are quickly submerged in the grit of war in contrast to the quiet of the trees and warmth of the fox’s den seen just seconds before. 

The brilliant cinematography of the opening sequence quickly caught my attention, as it would go on to do for the rest of the film. Here, though, the establishing shot overhead looks down at fallen soldiers littered across a gray landscape before moving into a tracking shot rolling straight into oncoming gunfire and then into the trenches synonymous with WWI. Viewers will feel like they are right there on the battlefield.

The following sequence is especially disheartening, as protagonist Paul Bäumer accepts his uniform with an excited smile, entirely oblivious to the fact it belonged to a slaughtered soldier just days before him.

Not long after Paul and his friends are deployed to the front lines, it is clear Berger’s main vision for this film was brutality. He uses these scenes for shock value more than for the plot, as evident with the film’s images of writhing men missing limbs, the dismembered body flailing in the tree, or the soldier crushed by the oncoming tank.

Such horrors push the once-naive Paul to recognize the scope of the conflict in which he has involved himself, thus developing the film’s theme: war is not the glory many imagine it to be. These healthy, young men were so excited to serve Germany, and were led to believe it signifies masculinity, but they each quickly found it was not how they imagined it.

They were boys, not men — rookies turned murderers. So as the farmer’s son kills Paul’s companion, Kat, for stealing, it becomes clear war pushes people to do terrible, violent acts.

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Even more powerful, in addition, was the political critique. Paul and Kat steal just to eat, contrasted by the close-ups of the politicians’ and military officials’ warm three-course meals. They have soldiers fight and die for their war while they selfishly pull the strings behind the shield of their privilege and power. 

The theme was the film’s highlight.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” does a fantastic job of situating the story in WWI. Beyond the brutality; the machine guns, gas masks, tanks, flamethrowers, and biplanes accurately demonstrate the scope of the war never before seen in world history. The brief stills of peaceful nature throughout the film exaggerate this, drawing a line between war and peace, violence and comfort.

On the other hand, the sound was definitely the film’s weak point. I understand the aim was to make viewers hear what Paul is hearing, but the sound was evidently secondary. Where many great films implement a powerful score to capitalize on the emotions seen on screen, “All Quiet on the Western Front” missed out as it only rarely, subtly added music to the most unnecessary scenes. 

I would also recommend watching the film in German with English subtitles — the post-synchronization of the English translation was distracting.

Moreover, the film seems to lack a central plot. I understand it is an adaptation of the novel, but this does not make it exempt from scrutiny. In essence, Paul only moves back and forth from the front lines to calmness until the armistice is in place. There is no catalyst or sense of urgency, in turn making the two-and-a-half hour runtime drag on at times.

The politics of forming the armistice are confusing and incomplete because the film focuses so heavily on the horrors of war more than anything. It seemed less important to Berger to tell a story than to find as many avenues as possible to show us said horrors.

No, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is not the first war movie of its kind, but while “Dunkirk” depicted the sounds of war and “1917” was a cinematographic feat, this film will be recognized for its depiction of the sights of war, as the battle scenes are the highlight.

Although by no means the greatest film of all time, the anti-war theme of “All Quiet on the Western Front” carries this film to a solid status despite falling short of other war classics.