It’s the reality of modern war movies – or at least the good ones – that they tend to be gruesome and exciting at the same time. It could be said that this is a contradiction that arises from the larger-than-life dynamics of the film medium. Or you could say that it is a truth that describes something fundamental about war: that the very reason war persists, despite all the terror, destruction and death, is that there is something in human nature that gravitates towards war. The movies, in their own way, play this out for us. Once again, though, I’m talking about the good ones. There is no more powerful example than “Saving Private Ryan.” I’ve never seen a more exciting war movie, and I’ve never seen a war movie that made me confront, more memorably, the unspeakable blood-curdling fear and devastation of war.
By contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” feels like a stripped-down experience — morally, spiritually, and dramatically. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel, this isn’t a film that tries to turn the infamous World War I trench warfare meat-grinder horror into some kind of “spectacle,” like Sam Mendes’ video game franchise. “1917” did. The film’s hero, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), is a student who, three years after the war, enlists in the Imperial German Army to fight for his fatherland. He is soon sent to the Western Front, a place where millions of soldiers have already fallen to their deaths in what is essentially a murderous war where no turf is exchanged.
During the war, the “handle” on the Western Front was small; the position of the front line never moved more than half a mile. So why did all these soldiers die? For no reason. Because of a tragic—one might say obscene—accident of history: that in World War I, the battleground fell between the older, “classical” static battle and the new reality of protracted slaughter enabled by technology. By the end of the war, 17 million people had died between them.
The 1930 Hollywood version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” directed by Lewis Milestone, is widely considered an anti-war landmark. But of course, if you watch it now, the war scenes won’t make the audience cringe like they did a century ago. The bar for terrorism and murder on screen has been raised far beyond that. Edward Berger, director of the new “All Quiet,” stages his war movies in what has become the standard existential bombs-bombs-in-the-ground, debris-flying-everywhere, war-is-hell-because-of-its-violence- is. -such a random mode of merciless destruction. He does it skillfully, but no better than that; he does not begin to touch the imagination that has gripped us in the war cinema of Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov. From the trenches, Paul and his comrades face a merciless hail of bullets, they are dunked face down in the mud, shot in the guts or in the head, attacked with guns and licks. .
Yet the pale, tender-hearted Paul, whose newly issued uniform has come loose from the corpse of a fallen soldier (a point meant to illustrate the never-ending cycle of death in World War I), somehow fights on and survives. He appears to us as a gentle young man, yet inside is a ruthless killer. In a whirlwind of shooting one soldier and then stabbing another, he basically becomes a desperate action hero, and I just put it that way because I didn’t find his intelligence on the battlefield particularly convincing. Berger, as a filmmaker, wants to bring us “close” to war, but the horror of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is in your face and also rather neat in presentation. Maybe that’s why it’s numbing.
The big war movies don’t hesitate to mix personal drama into the battle. 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 included, and one is frankly relieved when the film cuts to the usual scenes of the German Vice Chancellor, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), as he tries to make peace with the French generals who have cornered the German army. The negotiations are one-sided; The French, who have all the cards, want surrender on their terms. But we note, behind Erzberger, the unwavering resentment of the never-say-die German officers, which will of course be carried over into the next war.
Stanley Kubrick, with “Paths of Glory,” made what remains the greatest trench warfare film, and he wasn’t shy about involving us in the real drama. “All Quiet on the Western Front” hits hard, so that even when the armistice has been struck there is yet another battle episode, all to demonstrate, with an over-emphasized tragic irony, that the body count in World War I continued to rise for no reason. Any sane person would agree with that. Yet “All Quiet on the Western Front” is the war film as a thesis statement. It goes on and on, leaving you less shattered than empty.