Edward Berger’s new adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is an overwhelming onslaught of the horrors of war and an often painfully ironic portrait of the meaninglessness of the death and destruction war incurs. But it fails to make its spectacular sequences of trench warfare or its thought-provoking scenes emotionally impactful.
The film, based on the novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, trades the character driven approach of the Lewis Milestone-directed 1930 adaptation of the book for a more conceptual and visceral approach to the material.
All Quiet on the Western Front tracks the experience of young Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) who, along with many of his friends, enlists in the German army during World War I after being inspired by his teachers’ speeches about honor and duty. But when Paul and his friends arrive on the western front, there is nothing but horror and brutality to be found. The film then highlights some specific moments of camaraderie, horrific battles, and bureaucratic cruelty.
This new adaptation adds not one but two new narrative threads: the diplomatic mission of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) to agree upon an armistice and find an end to the war, and conversations between a General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) and his attendant Major von Brixdorf (Sebastian Hülk), in which Friedrichs grows increasingly agitated about the perceived weakness of the ruling government.
These additions add conceptually to the film, especially the images of Erzberger on a luxury train car with fresh fruits where the greatest inconvenience he experiences is getting a drop of pee on his nice shoes when the train jostles while he’s at a urinal. But they also literally pull us away from the men on the front. These new narratives draw attention and time from Paul and his fellow soldiers on the front, which means we aren’t able to develop as significant emotional connections to these men and boys as we would if we were to stay with them throughout the entire film.
It’s not just these stories higher up in the political and military hierarchies that draw away from the potential emotional connection and impact of the film. The vast majority of scenes with Paul and his comrades on the front are battle scenes that throw viewers into the experiential hell of trench warfare. These sequences are visceral and visually astounding — a sequence in which tanks roll through and over trenches is one of the most terrifying things recently put to film. They undeniably succeed in their intended purpose to convey the horror of the battlefield in the First World War, but they don’t bring us any closer to the characters experiencing that horror.
This new iteration of All Quiet on the Western Front maintains and builds upon the abstract atrocity of war touched on in the book and the previous cinematic adaptation, but it fails to be as impactful because it’s fundamentally more concerned with the abstract than the emotional. There are some moments between soldiers that are incredibly acted, particularly from Albrecht Schuch as Paul’s friend and mentor Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky. But these scenes are few and far between in a film that runs nearly two and a half hours and is clearly more focused on the way that the machinery of war constantly and uncaringly demands the sacrifice of young life.
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All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) is thought-provoking and viscerally disturbing, but it fails to pack an emotional punch.
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