Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 29, 2023

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front is a decent war film. I just wish it wasn't called All Quiet on the Western Front, because it keeps only the basic framework of the novel and makes significant changes that weaken the core story. That's a shame, because this is the first German film version of the justly famous German war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, and I was intrigued to see it.

Directed by Edward Berger and cowritten by Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, the story still centers on Paul Bäumer, a German teenager who is inspired to volunteer for the army along with several of his classmates because of the patriotic speeches of one of their teachers. Their idealism is quickly crushed by the brutal realities of the conflict that came to be known as The Great War and later World War I. Paul and his friends do find a bit of luck in being looked after by an older, veteran soldier, Stanislaus Katczinsky, nicknamed "Kat," who has an uncanny knack for finding food in a war zone and has a host of useful survival tips. Paul and the others experience the terror of trench warfare and bombings, charging across no man's land against machine guns, awful and scant food, rats, cold weather, and the wounding, maiming or even death of their friends and comrades.

All Quiet on the Western Front is well-shot, with some memorable, haunting images. The score is mostly avant-garde, minimalist, and not period, but its main, three-note riff is effectively disconcerting, and earned composer Volker Bertelmann (a.k.a. Hauschka) an Oscar. One of the key sequences from the book, Paul faced with the prospect of killing a man to preserve his own life, is nicely done, capturing the fear and regret of the whole encounter. Multiple harrowing incidents and gruesome deaths leave no doubt that war is not glorious. (Some of the war scenes are quite effective, but I did find myself pulled out by others. 'How can he still be walking after that wound?' 'Why do those tanks have no support?' and so on.) The standouts in the cast are Felix Kammerer as Paul, Albrecht Schuch as Kat, and Daniel Brühl as Matthias Erzberger, a German politician (and real person).

The filmmakers often opt for spectacle and shock rather than more subtle human experiences. For instance, a character who in the novel is struggling to imagine life after the war with a missing limb dies in a nasty way instead. Taken on its own, the shock is effective, but we get plenty other similar moments in the movie, and lose a different color that could have deepened the story.

The novel stays focuses on Paul and his comrades, but this version shows German officials (most notably Erzberger) negotiating with the French for peace, and shows a German general hell-bent on seizing territory in the last hours before the armistice takes effect. The French are mostly depicted as cruel bastards at the negotiating table and on the battlefield. (And arguably in civilian encounters, too.) The scenes are interesting in that they're invented by the German filmmakers and postulate the roots of World War II, suggesting that the more right-wing German elements, especially in the military, blamed the German politicians and the intractable French for Germany's disgrace. Such attitudes certainly did exist at the time – shortly after the war, Erzberger was assassinated by a right-wing group, and Hitler and others enflamed their followers with the stab-in-the-back myth, or Dolchstoßlegende. So getting a contemporary German perspective on these past events was intriguing, but the film really seems to lay it on thick in villainizing the French. Likewise, the filmmakers' choices in changing the ending seem problematic symbolically. (I would hope the symbolism was unintentional, but if so, why didn't it occur to them?)

The ultimate fate of key characters in this film version versus the book remain the same even if the particulars differ, and the general idea that war is often pointless and full of needless suffering does come through. The exact ending of the novel is also admittedly somewhat difficult to convey on film, although the 1930 adaptation does a pretty good job of devising a visual and emotional equivalent. Still, some of the particulars of the original ending are arguably rather important. The filmmakers opt to convey the idea that violence and hatred are cyclical, and passed down, which is all well and good, if an add-on. But much of the strength of the novel, and 1930 film, hinges on the bond between Paul and Kat. We do spend time with them in this film, but we really get to know and like them in the novel and the 1930 film. That gives the older movie much more emotional heft. One of the cardinal rules of good adaptation is that, if you change something, make it better. Perhaps you need to translate a moment into the new medium (as, for instance, The Lord of the Rings trilogy often does). The 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front strays from the central story to make other commentary, which would be fine in another film, or perhaps a better adaptation could have handled both elements. But here, the significant changes feel like unforced errors and a waste of stronger and more compelling source material.

U.S. and U.K. critics generally liked the film; it was nominated for nine Oscars and won four, including Best International Feature Film, and was nominated for 14 BAFTAs, winning seven. German critics were less kind, feeling it was deliberate Oscar-bait, historically inaccurate and did a disservice to the novel, a staple of many German school curricula. The most scathing critique probably came from Hubert Wetzel, who said "you have to ask yourself whether director Berger has even read Remarque’s novel." I'm guessing he read it but didn't understand the heart of the story. This version definitely feels like it's capitalizing on the famous title to make a different film. I do think that different film is still worth a look with appropriately lowered expectations, but given the title and the hype, I was hoping for better.

It's been years since I read the novel and saw the 1930 film (I haven't seen the 1979 TV adaptation), so I decided to watch it again. Directed by Lewis Milestone, it won him Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars. It holds up fairly well and is a pretty faithful adaptation. The talkies era was still relatively new, and microphones not great. Some of the acting is theatrical and dated. Other moments, especially silent facial expressions, are quite effective. Many of the shots, including a wide shot of a town and the battle scenes, are very technically impressive for the era. About 50 minutes in, there's a roughly 10-minute sequence of an attack on the trenches and a counterattack, with long dolly shots moving one way and then back, with machine guns sputtering away and men charging and falling, that remains a marvel of storytelling and technique. It is harrowing, it is shocking, it is relentless, it is moving. (Steven Spielberg reportedly watched every war movie he could find before making Saving Private Ryan, and he definitely watched the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front.) There's a bit in the novel about Paul's group of soldiers talking about taking their dying friend's nice boots, which might seem ghoulish to those back home, but they reason that someone else would just steal them and he'd have preferred that one of his buddies get them instead. In the 1930 film, this bit is rendered as a scene and a short, wordless montage. Read the passage and then see the movie sequence and you'll recognize it as a fine piece of adaptation and cinematic storytelling. The film's biggest strength is its emotional core, which depends not just on the combat scenes but the human relationships. Katz, played by Louis Wolheim, rather than being the tough-as-nails veteran scolding the new guys that we've seen in countless movies, is disarmingly compassionate, even when a greenhorn soils his pants in fear. We really get to like Katz, Lew Ayres as Paul, and some of the rest of the squad. I admired and appreciated some of the scenes in the 2022 film. But I was honestly much more moved by the 1930 film. There's no reason you can't watch both (and read the novel as well), but unless you can't stand old movies, if you could see only one version, I'd go with the 1930 one. (The Universal Blu-ray is a nice transfer, and it's remarkable to think that the film is almost 100 years old.)


spirilis said...

Cogent. Post more often you tease!

Anonymous said...

Frankly, it is so realistic that it is viscerally repulsive.

Suwannee Dave said...

It was WWI not II

Batocchio said...

Suwannee, corrected. A silly typo. Thanks!