It’s a reality of modern war films — or, at least, the good ones — that they tend to be horrifying and exciting at the same time. You could say that’s a contradiction that grows out of the kinetic, larger-than-life nature of the movie medium. Or you could say it’s a truth that expresses something fundamental about war: that the very reason war persists, for all its terror and destruction and death, is that there’s something in human nature that is drawn to war. The movies, in their way, act this out for us. Once again, though, I’m speaking of the good ones. There is no more powerful an example than “Saving Private Ryan.” I have never seen a war film more thrilling, and I have never seen a war film that made me confront, more memorably, the unspeakable blood-spurting fear and devastation of war.
By contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” feels like an experience that’s been stripped to the bone — morally, spiritually, and dramatically. Based on the 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, it’s not a movie that tries to turn the infamous meat-grinder horror of the trench warfare of World War I into some sort of “spectacle,” the way that Sam Mendes’ video-game apocalypse “1917” did. The film’s hero, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), is a student who, three years into the war, enlists in the Imperial German Army to fight for the fatherland. He is soon sent to the Western Front, a place where millions of soldiers have already gone to their deaths in what is essentially a homicidal turf war where no turf exchanges hands.
Over the course of the war, the land “capture” on the Western Front was meager; the location of the front line never moved by more than half a mile. So why did all those soldiers die? For no reason. Because of a tragic — one could say obscene — historical accident: that in WWI, the means of fighting was caught between an older, “classical” mode of stationary combat and the new reality of long-distance slaughter made possible by technology. By the end of the war, 17 million men had fallen between those cracks.
The 1930 Hollywood version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” directed by Lewis Milestone, is widely regarded as an anti-war landmark. But, of course, if you watch it now, the war scenes won’t make an audience shudder the way they did a century ago. The bar for terror and carnage onscreen has been raised far beyond that. Edward Berger, the director of the new “All Quiet,” stages his war scenes in what’s become the standard existential bombs-bursting-in-earth, debris-flying-everywhere, war-is-hell-because-its-violence-is-so-random mode of pitiless annihilation. He does it competently, but not better than that; he doesn’t begin to touch the level of imagination that has gripped us in the war cinema of Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov. Popping out of the trenches, Paul and his fellow soldiers are confronted by a merciless hail of bullets, they’re dunked face down in the mud, they’re shot in the guts or in the head, they’re attacked with bayonets and machetes.
Yet the pale, gentle-hearted Paul, whose newly issued uniform has come off the corpse of a fallen soldier (a point meant to illustrate the endless cycle of death in WWI), somehow fights on and survives. He strikes us as a mild young man, yet there’s a ruthless killer inside him. Whirling to shoot one soldier, then knife another, he becomes, in essence, a desperate action hero, and I put it that way only because I didn’t find his acumen on the battlefield especially convincing. Berger, as a filmmaker, wants to bring us “close” to war, but the horror in “All Quiet on the Western Front” is in your face and also rather tidy in its presentation. Maybe that’s why it feels numbing.
The great war films aren’t reticent about mixing personal drama into the combat. They feature characters as edgy and defined as their theater of violence. But the new “All Quiet on the Western Front” is two and a half hours of dramatic minimalism, as if this were somehow a measure of the film’s integrity. The soldiers, including Paul, are barely sketched in, and you’re frankly relieved when the movie cuts to conventional scenes of the German vice-chancellor, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), as he tries to broker a peace with the French generals who have trounced the German army. The negotiations are one-sided; the French, who hold all the cards, want surrender on their terms. But we register, behind Erzberger, the implacable never-say-die resentment of the German officers, which will of course be carried forward into the next war.
Stanley Kubrick, with “Paths of Glory,” made what is still the greatest movie about trench warfare, and he wasn’t shy about involving us in actual drama. “All Quiet on the Western Front” lumbers along, so that even once the armistice is struck there’s still another combat episode, all to demonstrate, with overly highlighted tragic irony, that the body count in World War I kept escalating for no reason. Anyone sane would agree with that. Yet “All Quiet on the Western Front” is the war movie as thesis statement. It keeps making its point, leaving you less shattered than empty.
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