“I’m a pair of boots with a rifle.” In many ways, this statement by one German soldier to another is the key to Erich Maria Remarque’s world-famous account of the years-long battle for a few hundred yards of land during World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front. Now, director Edward Berger (All My Loving) has made the latest film version of the story, telling the gripping tale of the fruitlessness and massive, deadly cost of war from the perspective of a young German soldier, Paul (Felix Kammerer), on the Western front—along the border of Germany and France. The resulting film is one of the most honest and startlingly realistic portrayals of the horrors of war you’ll likely see in your lifetime.
At first, Paul and his young friends enlist excitedly, thinking they’ll be heroes as these boys are transformed into men. But before long, they are ankle deep in mud, hiding in trenches with bullets and explosions all around them, desperate to stay alive as they watch their comrades drop around them. Paul lasts longer than most and sees the blood and absurdity of the fight they are engaged in, one that results in millions of lives lost over this nothing stretch of borderland. One of Paul’s early jobs after a particularly vicious firefight is to collect dogtags from dead German soldiers; even at this early stage in his military service, he becomes numb to the carnage before him—we’re not so lucky.
When we meet Paul, the war is nearing its end, so the only time the story cuts away from the fighting is when we observe the gruelingly slow process of negotiating a surrender by Germany, led by a politician played by Daniel Brühl, who simply wants the war done as soon as possible. He even begs the French to order a ceasefire during the negotiations, but the French refuse, knowing they are the victors; they simply don’t care about a few more dead Germans. Even after the treaty is signed, they insist the ceasefire not begin for a few hours, leaving one particularly angry German general eager for one last charge, thinking his troops would rather go out like heroes than simply turn tail as losers. The fighting during this last battle is as ruthless and chaotic as it is pointless, and it’s in these moments we truly see how utterly devastating the cost of war can be.
All Quiet on the Western Front is not an easy watch, but it’s fascinating to see it told from the perspective from which it was originally written. A few American adaptations have been made over the years, and were quite good. But hearing an actual German actor speak to his troops about the glory of fighting for the Fatherland somehow rings both true and hollow. Much like the recent 1917, this movie wants us to remember that World War I was as hellacious an event as any of the wars that followed, and just because the generation that fought in it is gone, their sacrifices should not be forgotten. The film is dirty, loud, messy and bloody beyond belief (the image of a soldier stabbing himself to death in the neck rather than die slowly from injuries is one that will not leave my brain soon), but it’s as powerful an antiwar statement as has ever been attempted in any format.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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