- All Quiet on the Western Front
- Directed by Edward Berger
- Written by Ian Stokell, Lesley Paterson and Edward Berger, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
- Starring Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch and Daniel Bruhl
- Classification R; 147 minutes
- Opens at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto and VIFF Centre in Vancouver Oct. 14, other Canadian cities Oct. 21; streaming on Netflix starting Oct. 28
If nearly a century’s worth of cinema hasn’t already taught the hard-learned lesson that war is indeed hell, then a new version of All Quiet on the Western Front is here to remind you of this universal truth. Greet the news that Netflix has decided to fund a remake of the original, and perhaps still most potent, antiwar film with a shoulder shrug, if you wish. But strip the here-we-go-again cynicism away and we’re left with an impressive, if still somewhat familiar, act of grimly determined cinema. This new version of an old tale has the capacity to horrify you into shell-shocked pacifism, while delivering a few minor-key surprises along the way.
You could argue that director Edward Berger’s remake is something of an essential production, too – this is, after all, the first time that German author Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark 1929 novel has been adapted in the writer’s native language. The new movie also benefits from an element that previous adaptations lacked: the kind of massive, go-for-broke budget that ensures an intimidating blast of shock and awe fills each frame. It is all intense enough to force viewers to wave the white flag, which is exactly Berger’s intent.
Tracing the naive optimism and then profound disillusionment of a young German soldier sent to the Western Front during the First World War, the film allows itself but a few moments of sunny humanity before plunging into a grinding hell-scape. As Berger follows young Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) from a kind schoolboy coaxed into service by his rabidly nationalistic schoolteacher to a battle-hardened shell of a man with blood on his hands and mud caked to his face, the director tells a story as relentless and oppressive as its central conflict. This is a film of dirt, guts, rain and pain.
As Paul manages to escape death time and again, watching his friends in the Imperial Germany Army perish one after the other, the only comfort the film offers is that, in this world, there is no real comfort at all. Look around, Berger implores, and ask yourself if this same soulless chaos could not consume you and your loved ones, too, at the whim of an autocrat’s pen.
To emphasize the arbitrariness of battle, Berger and his co-writers add a subplot absent from Remarque’s novel: the struggle of German politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl, a recognizable face to Western audiences thanks to his work in Inglourious Basterds and the Marvel Cinematic Universe) to secure an armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers. Erzberger’s noble plight, which takes place almost exclusively in finely appointed dining halls and train cars between well-dressed generals, offers an effective, if too tidy, contrast on the fat luxury of politics versus the emaciated desperation of trench warfare.
Ultimately, it is Berger’s handful of anachronistic touches that lend his All Quiet on the Western Front its most spectacularly haunting moments. There is his expert blending of computer and practical effects for the battle scenes – allowing for cruelly inventive new ways to destroy the human body – as well as a pounding three-beat synth score by Volker Bertelmann that constantly keeps the audience on edge and prepared for the absolute worst. Which is a reality, as the film reminds us until its very final second, that could arrive at any moment.