At the recently announced nominations for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, All Quiet on the Western Front snagged 14 nominations – the first movie to score this big since The King’s Speech in 2011. The 14 nominations also ties the German period drama with Ang Lee’s Chinese-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001), BBC noted.
The nominations have swung the spotlight back on Edward Berger’s version of the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Released by Netflix in October 2022, All Quiet on the Western Front follows the final days of World War I from the perspective of a 17-year-old recruit. Berger’s movie is also the excuse we need to revisit the first adaptation of Remarque’s classic. It was released as early as 1930, and it remains one of the most powerful war dramas ever made.
The original All Quiet on the Western Front is available on a pay-per-view basis on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube Movies, Google Play and Apple TV+. Lewis Milestone’s masterpiece left its mark on numerous directors looking to capture the tragedy of military conflict. But many of them ignored the quality that sets All Quiet on the Western Front apart. Even as it provides glimpses of the sheer drama of battle, the film is a clear-eyed critique of war itself – an action epic with a thumping pacifist heart.
Keyed up by a school principal’s exhortations to go forth and serve the Fatherland, the teenaged Paul and his friends join the Germany Army. A seriocomic boot camp soon gives way to the brutality of their situation. Many of their comrades either die or are badly wounded, while others lose their minds. They are constantly hungry and exhausted.
The horrors that await the soldiers is sprung upon the viewer unawares. In a masterfully designed deep focus sequence that has three distinct planes, the recruits scramble to board a train even as a deadly attack erupts on the horizon. In that moment, the innocence of Paul and his buddies is irrevocably shattered, never to be regained.
The film gets richer and visually even more stunning. Some of the tracking sequences are especially remarkable given the basic equipment with which Milestone and cinematographer Arthur Edeson were working at the time. Milestone moves smoothly between scenes of carnage that capture the sheer terror of the young recruits – the ominous pings of exploding bombs is enough to set them off – and moments of rare relaxation, including a lovely encounter with French women that is eased along by food.
One of the sequences is an especially masterful display of Milestone’s skill with cutting between close-ups and action. Trapped in a trench even as his enemies leap above him, Paul finally gets his hands on a French soldier, only to regret it.
The element of surprise is missing from Edward Berger’s handsomely produced version. Rather than letting Paul (and us) learn about war the hard way, Berger plonks us into battle early on, going on to use flashbacks and a parallel sub-plot for the rest of the narrative.
State-of-the-art cinematography and visual effects are put to excellent use in the 2022 production, with drone cameras providing sorrowful views of heaps of bodies. Berger makes a few tweaks to the source novel, including altering some of the character arcs.
The new film is grimmer in tone, contrasting the soldiers’ travails with the politicking of their military bosses. But the universality of Paul’s experience from the first movie, and his realisation that borders don’t matter if you land up with a missing leg or plain dead, is missing.
The original film can be flipped as an experience of the Allied Forces, which eventually won WW1. The futility of the exercise, the price paid by soldiers used as cannon fodder, and the meaningless of death has rarely been this stark, or this heart-wrenching.
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