A book and two movies already lay in the past for this tale, but it is a classic so I suspect that we are not out of remakes yet. And so I found myself on Netflix watching the latest version of All Quiet on the Western Front.
It is a German production, available dubbed in Netflix, and I will say that they did a very good job on that aspect, though English dubbed over German does seem to work pretty well in many cases due to at least some similarity in words… and you’re spared that who need to wait the verb trailing at the end of anything beyond simple sentences.
I will also say that post-war German cinema has the visual imagery of the waste and despair of war down pat. Anything from The Bridge to Downfall to Stalingrad, they get the point across that war is not a glorious adventure but simple trauma and misery and death inflicted on ourselves, and hardly worth the effort in what we gain from it.
A particular recurring theme of German cinema is the betrayal of the common soldier by an out of touch, self-obsessed high command willing to sacrifice others… in the films I noted above, the young boys sent to guard the bridge for no reason, the German nation, or the whole of the Sixth Army… in the name of their own honor and the honor of the nation. And this production of the story is no different.
As in other productions, it follows the tale of Paul Baumer, who comes of age as the war is already under way. Having been fed a non-stop stream of tales of glory, honor, and service by his teachers… something so aptly torn apart by Paul Verhoeven in Starship Troopers… he and his circle of friends are excited to join the army, eager to get into the fight before it is too late and they miss out on the great adventure.
The theme of the film is broadcast in the first few minutes where we see a crew of soldiers behind the lines stripping their own dead of uniforms, boots, and equipment. That is piled onto trains and sent back to Germany where it is soaked, cleaned, repaired, and supplied to the new recruits joining the army. And there is Paul, the new recruit on his first day, receiving his uniform and kit, only to find a name tag already sewn into the collar of his tunic. He goes back to the supply sergeant to point out he has somebody else’s stuff. The sergeant says something bland about uniforms sometimes being issues in the wrong size, rips the name tag out, and says the uniform is Paul’s. We know what happened to the man whose name was casually discarded, but Paul is set to find out.
So we follow Paul into training and up to the front and his baptism in fire, where death and blood and chaos and eternal mud and terror await him. Death finds his friend group almost immediately. But Paul survives and adapts, learns from the veteran Kat how to survive, where to find small comforts and a bit more food as they slaughter French attacks wholesale, only to have to rise up out of their own trenches and attempt to move forward only to face a similar slaughter as they are driven back in turn. His friends fall and new recruits show up, only to fall in their turn, but somehow Paul and Kat persist through the horror, growing calloused to the slaughter, burying their trauma in order to survive, only to have it well up unexpectedly at times.
The visual are what sell this film. The mud of the trenches, the dirty re-used uniforms, the machine guns and soldiers trying to advance across no man’s land, the thump of bullets hitting corpses and dirt as each side seeks to bring down their attackers. And mud. Always mud. The earth, churned up, the shell holes full or water, the trenches filling up in the rain, always making for more and more mud to squelch through.
The film, however, does depart from the book and the previous movie versions in its flow. Here Paul spends very little time in training, and we miss the sadistic training corporal who resents the fresh faced youth of Paul and his friends and makes their lives a misery… though hardly so in light of what they will soon face at the front… so there is no moment of satisfaction when the corporal finds himself at the front later on and his tough talk is laid bare.
In fact, the film seems very much in a rush to get to the end of the war. Paul’s school, training, and early experiences in the trenches are rushed through because the script really wants to be about events in November 1918.
The film, while happy to display the spectacle of war for us, the filth and the blood and the quiet moments in between, it really wants to go after the army command. So we have the field commander in his immaculate uniform on the balcony of a ruined chateau ordering his tired and despairing troops into one final push, days before the Armistice of Compiegne and the end of the war that they might secure a peace with honor.
Paul and Kat and their comrades go over the top once more in a final push. French machine guns cut down many of the attackers, but they make it into the French trench and engage in brutal bout of close range combat, eventually wresting control of the line. In the momentary respite as the French flee, the attackers pounce on the food left behind. Their own rations have been so meager that hunger overtakes them.
And then the French return, supported by a line of Saint-Chamond tanks, which advance slowly on the Germans, cutting down any who expose themselves. Not exactly historically accurate… either having tanks readily to hand for a local counter-attack or those models being used that late in the war… but it is a dramatic scene and the Germans rejoice as they manage to defeat one of the metal monsters. But that does not slow the French down, and the tanks are backed up by French flame thrower teams, lending a lurid light to the grim spectacle. Also, probably not exactly accurate, but nice cinema.
The Germans are thrown into flight while negotiations are going on in the railway car in the Compiegne forest. We get the scene of Paul in the shell hole with the wounded French soldier, though it isn’t as moving as past versions and feels like it was tossed in as more of a need to align somewhat with the source material than to show Paul realizing how the war has warped his humanity. The movie ends with peace and tragedy, though the wrap up gives lie to the meaning of the title of the book. At least it does to me.
Here we get into the baggage I bring with me causing problems. In the book and the two previous films, the final death comes a month before the end of the war, in a peaceful moment between fights, when the troops can feel the end is near. The death is overlayed with the status dispatch from the sector, which reports “Im Westen nichts Neues” or “Nothing new in the West,” which was translated to “All quiet on the Western Front” for the English speaking audience.
Yes, in both scenarios, the final death is senseless. But in the original a sniper’s bullet takes the final life in a moment of peace and hope, when the end seems so near, while in this new version the death is very much the end result of violent action. They are both lives thrown away, but it feels like a bit of a message shift for me.
But, as I noted above, post war German cinema has often been keen to focus on the betrayal of the troops by their commanders who were willing to sacrifice them while they lived well, and this is another entry in that category.
Still, without my baggage, the film stands alone pretty well. The battle scenes and life in the trenches are gritty and real. It lacks the raw attempt at getting the sense of battle in the 1930s version of the film, or the focus on Paul’s humanity in the 1979 version, but it brings its own strengths to the table; the sense futility and random death and the processing of soldiers through the military machine like the reused uniforms they wear. It wants very much to be an anti-war film like its predecessors, and gets its points across, if somewhat less deftly than the previous entries.
Of course, there is an argument that there is no such thing as an anti-war film. Any film that shows battle will seem like fun and glory to somebody. That brings me back around to Starship Troopers again, which was very much a poke in the eye of militarism and meaningless patriotism and where that leads. And yet, at the time and even now, there are many who watch it and don’t get the elevate satire of the film, seeing it literal glorification of war and embracing that as the message.
But if it wants to find more of an anti-authoritarian niche for its message… that those in power who talk about duty and honor only when used to elicit sacrifices in others… well there is certainly room for that. Won’t get fooled again and so on.