"All Quiet On the Western Front."
(NOTE: This post is now free). Watching a war film in war time.
War films are always guilt-inducing. No matter how bleak and true to life, they are still served up as entertainment. Hard lessons told honestly and with pain and blood are still, at the end of the day, bent for entertainment purposes.
In my pursuit of trying to watch, for the first time in years, all (or most) of the Academy Award nominees, I turned to this German update of the 1930 film based on the book of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque (published in 1929, 11 years after the end of the World War I).
I watched “All Quiet On the Western Front” (streaming on Netflix) a couple of days before the United States agreed to send M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, which in effect cleared Germany to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine (and, more expediently, other countries using the Leopard 2 to also send them to Ukraine). Those acts, long hinted at but never green lighted, thus crossed a very red blinking line from Russia, which had threatened to use nuclear weapons if necessary, and if NATO and Allied forces essentially stepped up a proxy war.
So, yes, it made an already uncomfortable “entertainment” decision more problematic. Or did it? “All Quiet On the Western Front” is an anti-war book and the original is an anti-war film, and so is the 2022 version from German director Edward Berger. There is no glorifying anything in this film.
On that front, it’s an exceptionally well done succession of punches to one’s psyche. It is bleak on top of bleak, as it should be and is necessary. The difficulty watching it isn’t that it lacks “entertainment” — it’s harrowing and excellent throughout, one of the select top-notch war films of any era. No, the difficulty is that, right now, in 2023, Russian and Ukraine are in a land war in Europe that, despite missiles and modern drones, is decidedly WWI-esque in its unfolding battles.
The war in Ukraine is a dug-in war. It has trenches. Just a day ago, it had tanks (Russian) rolling over some Ukrainian trenches — a scene that it’s not hard to conjure up once you’ve seen the tanks roll over the trenches in “All Quiet On the Western Front,” a small collection of scenes in a long movie that nonetheless leave a lasting impact. Those moments are the introduction of advanced weaponry — tanks — upon a war that has been fought mostly with single-shot rifles fixed with bayonets.
The fact that winter has stalled the trench warfare in Ukraine somewhat is the reason — time to fortify — all those tanks are about to be unleashed to cross that red line, theoretically, that would expand the war into unforeseen, potentially nuclear realms.
You just can’t escape the odd, unsettling, eeriness of watching a movie set between 1914-1918 and see modern day similarities to Ukraine, 2023.
War movies have been dominated by WWII and Vietnam. There are plenty of great ones in that field, but they all had the “advantage” of being well past current events, which sometimes allowed them to creep too close to legend/lore, sentimentality of the Greatest Generation or broad swipes at the reluctant, drug-addled anti-warriors of the Vietnam “conflict.”
(There are, of course, plenty of excellent movies about both wars; notably, in recent years, the superb “Dunkirk”).
Again, the difference this time is that we have a WWI-styled war (currently) in Ukraine and a WWI war movie up for an Academy Award and available to stream right now. Where that war-movie-in-war-time experience leaves you as a viewer is precisely where it should — unable to find escapism in anything you see. It also ratchets up one’s own anxiety about life imitating art and whether, in the coming days, weeks or months, we might see an escalation that is, well, decidedly modern, where there’s no return once it begins.
And that’s where “All Quiet On the Western Front,” as essentially a “modern” retelling in period clothing, has its most lasting impact. When you watch a war film in times of war, or just after a war if we include many of the recent Middle East-centric American wars, it’s surreal. (Of course, those wars were “over” and the war in Ukraine is not). But the point is that here we all are watching a movie set in the very distant past and we have to wonder about the lost lessons of it. How can you not watch “All Quiet On the Western Front,” in its archaic WWI setting and not wonder if, potentially, maybe, let’s-hope-not, WWIII breaks out?
The film is saying, don’t let this happen again. And yet, the headlines are the headlines.
I think it’s perfectly fine to be silently screaming inside with fear that the world might end in a war and then allow yourself to watch a war movie. There’s something about art and therapy there, for sure. But your mileage may vary.
It’s been more than a year and there’s still a land war in Europe, which is one of the craziest sentences you can write. There is still fighting to come. No solution — meaning end — seems either clear or impending. In a flat land, stuck in the snow and mud, both sides just dig in deeper, oddly reflecting the grunt-level visuals of “All Quiet On the Western Front,” but with a caveat that the future — actual use of an air war and “tactical nuclear weapons” on a “small” scale could be used. Oh, and the escalation to end all escalations that could follow.
Which makes writing these words — “All Quiet On the Western Front” is a great war movie — seem out of place no matter how true. But it is great. This is a visceral movie. Berger balances just the right level of slow-play introduction with the first awful crack of bombs and blood for a collection of young, naive German soldiers who were dying to get into the war. At around two and a half hours, “All Quiet On the Western Front,” holding to the book but judiciously expanding and deleting from it as well, is a relentless barrage of scenes that are simple in their unfolding horror — an undramatic bullet to the head; lots of mud, fear, crying and, of all true but hard to imagine things, hand to hand combat with bayonets and two opposing forces rushing through the mud or darkness to meet in some hellscape in the middle.
You can’t watch those scenes and not think of, say, Russia’s Wagner Group sending convicts in waves of frontline target-practice mincemeat trying to capture 100 yards of already flattened, demolished land. As advancing soldiers in the film race toward a single bullet that puts them in the mud, you can’t help but think of the randomness of Ukrainian civilians trying to live in heatless, waterless, semi-destroyed housing just before taking in a missile or drone attack.
If you’re reading the news, the past is the present. It’s hard to get your head around. Nobody really likes talking about it.
And that’s absolutely the importance — and discomfort — of “All Quiet On the Western Front.” Berger took on the task of “remaking” a classic war film no doubt with the thought that nothing much has changed, as evidenced by any recent war you want to cite. That it would end filming and debut in some bizarro world of modern warfare mimicking the early 20th Century source material is surreal, but also, sadly, not.
If war proves anything, it’s that no lessons are learned for long.
Such a beautiful review, Tim. I feel I don’t have to watch the film right away, (overwhelmed) but have it firmly catalogued in my mind to watch later. Thank you. Particularly for the context.
I don’t want to be too political, but the Kyiv Independent English language newspaper seems a really good follow for what’s happening daily in Ukraine. I’ve been having this existential angst where I feel I can tolerate Putin threatening to vaporize me in my sneakers more easily than I can fathom Mariupol or the ongoing unholy war crimes, (civilian rape, torture, murder) and the suffering of Ukrainian civilians. Plus, Ukraine agreed not to amass nuclear weapons in exchange for protection from Russia by the west. What a tightrope slippery slope clusterf%#k nightmare.
Once, I happened upon my dad (who fought before college in WW II [France, D-Day minus one]) watching “Apocalypse Now” on HBO. He was crying. He said, “They got it right. This movie finally got it right.”
As others have said, your review was superb and thought provoking. One cannot escape comparisons to the war in Ukraine. I watched All Quiet on the Western Front after reading your review--it has been on my list and your review was all the prompting I needed--and my thought after it was over was how can anyone watch this and still think war is a good idea. It seems like we do not ever learn. Men (mostly) have been formally killing each other for eons with ever more deadly weapons and to what end? I despair at times for the evolution of our species. My grandmere was French and met and married an American serviceman stationed in France during World War I so it was an illuminating glimpse into that time.
Just before I saw this film, I watched Narvik (Netflix/very good film) about a town in Norway that the Nazis tried to take over during World War II to gain control of their iron ore industry to provide material for their war machine. I had been watching Hunters (not great but interesting) mostly for Al Pacino hamming it up (he leads a group of Nazi hunters) and became interested in learning more about that part of history so this film was a small part of the piece of that war.
Other great "anti" war movies: Apocalypse Now (one of my top five movies) and I can't recommend highly enough the 1971 Dalton Trumbo film Johnny Got His Gun, a harrowing anti-war movie if there ever was one.
I think the big question about anti-war films is, do any of these powerful stories ever change anyone's mind about war?