Imagine being a high school boy in Germany during World War I. All of the leaders in the country are telling you that there is no greater honor in society than going to battle and fighting for your country. They paint a picture of a life of valor, in which you serve your time and return home to accolades and swooning women — a heroic soldier fighting for good. Your friends all desperately want to prove their manhood to the world, and your parents think you lack the stamina or courage to survive on the battlefield. What other choice is there but to go to war for your country? You are enlisted, given a uniform, and head out to the front lines eager to prove yourself.
This is the same story of millions of soldiers that were enlisted and sent to war over politics they were hardly old enough to understand. But once they got to the front lines and figured out what glory through combat really looked like, a new, darker reality set in. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is a film that looks this reality in the eye without flinching, and although it is undoubtedly a tough watch, it is a rewarding film that has much to say about the politics of war and the horrors of the soldiers on the ground. In this film, viewers follow Paul Bäumer, a kid who enters the war with high hopes for his future, but soon realizes he would be lucky to survive just one battle. The promises he was fed by German officials were essentially lies, and he now must kill to make it to his next meal.
In the very beginning of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, director/writer Edward Berger shows a boy named Henrich who is running into battle while all his comrades are killed around him. After he is killed, the boy’s uniform is then recycled, with the name sewn out of it so it can be given to another boy of his size. This isn’t just the depiction of a cold reality of war, but a stark message about the cycle of death among young boys that war encouraged. While world leaders were sitting in their quarters, peacefully debating over which political move to pursue, their decisions were causing boys to be sent to their deaths in droves under the guise of nationalism. All of these soldiers were told that fighting for their motherland was the only way to prove themselves, when they were really just fighting a pointless battle that had no logical end or progression.
The film depicts these battle scenes in bloody and visceral fashion, with stunning cinematography and makeup and harrowing sound design and score. These scenes of carnage are the most brutal and realistic scenes of war I can recall viewing in recent times, helmed with skill by Berger who proves himself to be on a level of craftsmanship and talent that stands alongside the finest historical film directors. The only film with comparable inclusion of numbingly graphic and sad scenes is Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which contains some of the best and most revealing scenes of war ever put to screen but from the American perspective.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is based on the 1929 classic book from Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote about his own experience being drafted by the German army during World War I. This novel is one of the first revealing first-person accounts of the horrors of war, and generated great awareness from the public at the time, to the extent that Remarque was forced to flee Germany for spreading “anti-war propaganda.” Even though the story of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is one that has already been told in modern times, Berger’s engrossing interpretation of this material gives it fresh life and a unique 21st Century perspective on past events. Berger adds an adjacent storyline to the classic story involving the German and French diplomats attempting to negotiate an armistice in order to stop the death toll from climbing further. The contrast between these composed and classy politicians who are treating war like a game of chess and the muddy and scarred soldiers who must fight to survive one more day is stark, and truly puts into perspective what war means to different classes of people.
At the end of the day, only a select group of people in power run the conflict, and the rest of the millions of people involved have to suffer the consequences of whatever decision the politicians make on their behalf. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT contains these messages and many more, covering the war in a fully-realized manner that causes viewers to feel true despair for those involved. Hope for a future is almost out of the question for these soldiers, making them feel as if they have been condemned to a hellish alternate reality. For many years in both World Wars, every single country involved was sending their youngest generation to die for their mistakes, and for reasons that were often trivial compared to the death that occurred.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is a powerful reminder of the senseless violence and pointlessness of war, which is especially timely given the situation in Ukraine. War should be nothing but the last possible resort, and whenever a war like the one in Ukraine is started over trivial matters, humanity is killing innocent people on both sides for nothing. This film is helmed beautifully by Berger, and contains some riveting performances — specifically Felix Kammerer, who, in his feature-film debut, delivers possibly the most devastatingly well-acted scene of 2022 thus far. Not enough people can watch ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, which will forever be relevant as long as humans keep deciding to send troops to kill other human beings.