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Depictions of War: All Quiet on the Western Front



Caution: This article contains spoilers of the film

When Erich Maria Remarque published “All Quiet on the Western Front” In 1928, he did not expect the impact it would have on the world and the survival of this novel. His words would lead to a better understanding of the horror a soldier faces in war and the lasting effects of trauma, which at that time, was not something comprehensible for many. It would lead to some controversy and discussion, due to us following the story of a young German boy instead, during the First World War. The novel was even forbidden by Nazis, because of its “treacherous” depiction. Thankfully, it was still received well and is now one of the most important works of anti-war literature, which wasn’t Remarque’s true intention, but his way of shedding light on the hell war was for anyone involved and how young men are brainwashed into battle. The American director Lewis Milestone would, only two years later in 1930, turn Remarque’s novel into film. The 1930 film would follow the book truly and, by beginning with a mission showing the audience that it isn’t taking sides, just like the novel meant it to. The movie All Quiet on the Western Front is, even after 100 years later, for many their favourite movie of all time. Its revolutionary style and creative ways would influence filmmakers in the future, proving that it was ahead of its time.

In 1979 the classic would again be adapted into film, this time by Delbert Mann, a veteran director with a great filmography. Again it was very well received, with some viewers stating that this newer version is better than its original, despite us following the events faithful to its source material and minor changes towards the end. However others believed Mann’s version to be great, but not as good as its predecessor. 

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) Copyright: Netflix

Now, the German anti-war classic was adapted by Germans for the first time. Edward Berger would be the one to direct, while also writing the screenplay along with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell. From the very beginning of the 2022 version, we are taken into battle, with modern visual improvements giving us a new light on the colours of war. As in the novel and its adaption, we follow Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a 17-year-old German boy and his friends who are eager to fight for their country. Slowly, we watch them descend as they face the trenches and battlefield, as the novel depicted also, giving us insight onto young soldiers unaware of what war was actually like before joining it. The first time Paul realises what he has gotten himself into, is his interaction with a commander when ordered to put gas masks on. Paul shows his companionship when helping a struggling soldier to put his mask on before Paul puts it on himself. “You will die first,” says the commander. Paul stays silent. The slow descent of Paul’s character is shown and acted in a way that is so authentic, you can’t help but feel your heart sink in your chest from the dread and hopelessness Paul and his friends are exposed to. The actors being German gives the whole atmosphere a more authentic perspective, for especially in its first adaption in 1930, Paul and his friends were acted by Americans, failing to communicate like Germans do.

The cinematography in Berger’s adaption (by Brit James Friend) helps paint a clear picture of war, handing us different visual styles throughout the film with many horrifying, but beautiful shots, which felt reminiscent of older classics. Everywhere, there are the dead. In war, these dead soldiers are seen as limp bodies, empty of life. Just there for their collars to be picked up after a fight. Paul meets older comrades Stanislaus Katczinsky (Albert Schuch) and Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic) and, as we spend time with them, they grow closer enjoying what little they have.

Paul and other young men, before joining the war. Copyright: Netflix

During scenes of the group laughing and talking together you cant help but feel a sense of dread, knowing what might happen to all of them. We see Paul change from a young, determined boy to another product of a general’s obsession with war. We follow him through grief, breakdowns and fear, until he is faced with the act of killing. Towards the finale of the film, when all friends are gone and only Tjaden and Stanislaus are there, there comes a scene which struck me like no other. Paul killing a Frenchman in close combat. Paul has killed before, but everything was so fast paced that he perhaps didn’t have time to realise what had happened. Paul isn’t hesitant to kill, knowing it is either him or them, but Edward Berger takes his time to showcase Paul’s rollercoaster of horrible emotions as the Frenchman lies dying. With only the two of them present, Paul retreats, hoping the man stays quiet while dying, maybe so others don’t hear, maybe so he doesn’t have to. Paul crumbles into himself, shutting his ears and eyes tight. Then, as he sees the Frenchman stare him down, he crawls back to him wishing to save his life, as the man chokes before finally passing away. Paul breaks down, repeating the same words over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Without Felix Kammerer’s acting and Berger’s direction, this sequence would have not been the same. Furthermore, he takes the French ID out, reading the deceased soldier’s name and seeing a picture of his wife and child. Paul hugs the dead man, promising to retrieve his belongings to his family. A tragic scene.

There are a few scenes within the film which confused me; when Tjaden who seems to have lost his mind, commits suicide with a fork later on in the film. I knew it would happen as we watch Tjaden, deep in thought as he holds the fork in his hand. The scene itself is very sad and traumatic, but I asked myself why did they hand him a fork in the first place? He was eating soup, maybe that’s nitpicky, but it did seem slightly forced for the film to kill Tjaden. Whereas in the novel, Tjaden survives and learns from his experiences. Also, to add, in the novel Tjaden was a bed wetter, and Himmelstoss, the General, found another bed wetter and forced them to sleep in the same bed and Tjaden forgives him. I think I can understand the changes done in Berger’s film, but it did feel forced and out of place to the character. Stanislaus or short “Kat” is now left with Paul, acting as his last surviving friend and big brother. Until he, too, is shot by a French farmer kid. That too, to be honest, bothered me. It again felt forced, it made sense in that they did steal from them for food, but how did the child just get into the woods & follow them with the shotgun? Why this change? I don’t know. What they did keep in the movie though, is Paul carrying him all the way back to no avail, Kat dies, leaving Paul alone.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

The few instances that Berger’s adaptation changes from Paul’s point of view is to show us what’s going on with the officials attempting to negotiate an end to this war with the French whilst the soldiers are battling. The closer Paul gets to losing himself, the closer these officials get to ending the conflict.

Depicting battle hungry Generals enjoying wine and good food and seeing themselves as “good soldiers” wishing for more war and destruction. The General regrets ending the war through diplomacy with the French, who said the war will end at exactly 11:11, but the General prefers to win it with the German troops attacking one last time. Nothing like it can be found in the 1930 picture. In the 1930 film, Paul returns to the trenches and notices a butterfly just out of reach. Paul reaches out to rescue it after being captured by this creature of beauty in the midst of all the chaos. We only see his hand extending out of the trench before a gunshot goes off and seeing the hand go limp. It is the last image we see before the film fades to black.

In Berger’s 2022 adaption, when everyone is lost and only Paul remains and is told to return one last time, his face is empty. There is nothing there left inside of him. There is no trace of the once energetic boy. He fights ferociously against a Frenchman and both plunge into the barricades. Hidden from anyone else, they share looks and give up. Showing us one another’s empathy and how in reality, they don’t want to fight, they only want to survive. They don’t hate each other, but are a mere product of higher powers and naivety. Unexpectedly, a French man jumps out from the shadows, stabbing Paul in the back. Just like Paul killed without hesitant and to survive, he is killed also. The Frenchman he just fought looks at him, knowing there is nothing to be done, and leaves. Above, the shots have gone quiet, only screams of freedom are heard. “The War is Over.” Paul, in one last breath, struggles up the stairs to get a last glimpse of freedom, before dying amongst bodies and celebration. 

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