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All Quiet on the Western Front
Directed by Edward Berger
Screenplay by Edward Berger, Ian Stokell, and Lesley Paterson
Based on All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Distributed by Netflix
(Rated R, 2022)
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for All Quiet on the Western Front.**
The term “war film” tends to conjure in the popular imagination one of two images: 1) that of the sober-faced “band of brothers” toughing it out together somewhere in Europe or in the Pacific isles during the Second World War (à la Saving Private Ryan , Band of Brothers , or The Pacific ); or 2) that of the shellshocked soldier in green fatigues stumbling out of the Vietnamese jungle wearing a thousand-yard stare (à la Apocalypse Now , Platoon , or Full Metal Jacket ). These images also reinforce the two different “approaches” or “tones” that films of the genre tend to take regarding the subject matter: either a kind of admiration for the unique sense of brotherhood among combatants found in times of war, or a critical look at the hopelessness and futility of war altogether. Thus, in recent years, the “epic war film” genre has been further subdivided into “war film” and “anti-war film” categories to accommodate these tonal nuances.1 Yet both images, the band of brothers and the shellshocked jungle warrior, reinforced in the collective conscience by wildly popular video games such as Call of Duty, are exclusively American images, and reflect a dichotomized look at the historical record.2
Can violence, with respect to the epic war film umbrella, ever be redemptive? Well, the answer seems to depend on which approach one takes. Set out to explore the dynamics between soldiers who forge a kind of surrogate family with their “brothers in arms,” then, yes, it can be redemptive — but only the context of echoing Jesus’s words that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 KJV). However, if the goal is to show the cost of war, the futility of bloodshed, and the meaninglessness of human life thrown away, then no, violence is, ultimately, pointless and war is fundamentally nihilistic. Few major films have tried to cross the treacherous no man’s land between these two approaches, one notable exception being Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016). And now Edward Berger’s 2022 reimagining of All Quiet on the Western Front (nominated for nine Oscar awards) marches flint-faced into the same territory. The end result is less than spectacular.
The History of the Story. In the great pantheon of epic war films, Lewis Milestone’s Best Picture Oscar-winning 1930 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (lit. “Nothing New in the West,” 1928) is both a genre classic and a genre oddity. There are no “brothers in arms” fighting in the cobblestoned streets of quaint European towns and cities, and there are no jungles. And there are no heroic Americans marching to liberate anyone from the Nazi menace. In fact, the characters are Germans — the genre’s usual “bad guys.” Set in the mud-slicked trenches of Europe during the only “World War” known at the time and focusing the camera on starry-eyed German youths about to be cut to pieces by then-innovative “machine-guns,” Milestone’s film — released as All Quiet on the Western Front — was a dirty, morbid thing that reveled in its own repulsiveness because Milestone was making a point about pointlessness. War is tragic and foolish — that was his polemic — and he marched the film out just as things were heating up in Europe for a second time. And the response to this American film about German soldiers was nothing short of a fiasco — film critics raved while Nazi supporters mobbed theaters in Germany, eventually succeeding in having the film and the source material it was based on outlawed due in part to the perceived damage the film’s (and book’s) tone could do to the German war effort.3
Milestone’s film sits firmly in the “anti-war” category of the epic war film genre, quite literally exploding any romanticized notions of the “brothers in arms” trope before that motif ever became a staple of the genre. Viewers are subjected to loss after loss, like watching a prototypical slasher flick in which characters are stalked and picked off not by some masked maniac with an axe, but by stray bullets and sudden explosions, the weapons of a great and indefinable evil power called “war.” Meanwhile, the main character, a poetic and sensitive Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), struggles to understand in his own thinking why people go to war in the first place and argues about it with his family and other German youths while on leave. The film is brutal, but also philosophical. And it also understands beauty and empathy — two broad category themes that Remarque carefully laces through his original text. This is seen in Milestone’s film with the recreation of a particularly haunting scene from Remarque’s novel, in which Bäumer kills a man in hand-to-hand combat, but is so distraught and emotionally gutted by what he has done that he begs forgiveness from the man’s corpse. In Remarque’s book, Bäumer later confesses this to his friends, seeking some kind of absolution. There is a sense, both in Remarque’s book and Milestone’s film, that Bäumer never fully loses touch with his humanity. He struggles to retain it, to be sure, but he is still a human being who is drawn to goodness when he sees it — in Milestone’s adaptation, Bäumer meets his unceremonious end when he is struck by a faceless sniper’s bullet while he reaches for a butterfly that happens to light in the nearby mud and muck.
A Different Adaptation. Berger’s 2022 adaptation of Remarque’s book is different from Milestone’s. Obviously, there is overlap with the 1930 adaptation because the source material is the same, but there is far less of an emphasis on beauty and empathy — a testament, no doubt, to the cynical times in which we live (never underestimate the ability of modern filmmakers to deconstruct a deconstruction). Paul (Felix Kammerer) does not go home on leave, and there is no philosophizing with family members or former teachers regarding either the perceived necessity of war coming up against the harsh reality of what it actually entails or the human cost. In many ways, Berger’s adaptation is more stripped down, simpler, unplugged. It is, in a word, far more humanistic.
The humanistic bent is present in Remarque’s novel, to be sure, but it is humanism in the context of dignity. There is some shape of fundamental goodness that remains, some trace of the worth of the human being that makes the atrocities of war real atrocities, and not just an endless procession of dead men walking to their muddy graves. War is destructive because it destroys lives — real, human lives that have worth and dignity. As Anglican Francis Spufford notes, “people don’t die statistically, they die in ones, and for each person the loss is complete and incomparable. It is the erasure of the entire sum of things, the obliteration of the whole world. It doesn’t make it better to know that your death is part of a smaller statistic.”4
Except in Berger’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, characters feel less like people and more like vague outlines of human beings. Viewers get no sense of the life Paul lives outside of his time with the German military. But this was a conscious decision on Berger’s part. In an interview with Screen Daily, he stated:
In the book, there’s a chapter of Paul going home and feeling he doesn’t belong anymore. And people can’t relate to him because his experiences are very different. We couldn’t include that, because we included the signing of the Armistice in Compiegne, and that automatically puts that part of the movie at the last week of the war. But it is a very famous scene and one I would have missed, that feeling at least. So the scene on the latrine, taking a sh–, which is the most normal activity you can have, we included to show there’s no way of returning to normalcy for them.5
In other words, Berger substitutes a scene between Paul and Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch) on the john for the scenes in which Paul returns home. He substitutes Paul reading a letter for Katczinsky (Katczinsky cannot read) to show that Paul is intelligent and learned for the scenes in which Paul argues with his father over the “stupid questions” his family asks and with his former schoolteacher over the horrors of war from the perspective of someone safely at home versus the perspective of someone in the trenches. Again, Remarque’s Paul is a poetic philosopher, and not just a warm body to be thrown into the meat grinder (that contrast is the whole point of Remarque’s polemic, insofar as he has one). But Berger substitutes the rich irony of Paul connecting with no one other than his dying mother (they’re both dying, you see, in their own ways) for a scene between two men sitting together—on the toilet. It might seem “normal,” to use Berger’s word, but it is not dignified, and therein lies the huge dissonance between Remarque’s book (and Milestone’s film) and Berger’s adaptation.
Now, one can certainly argue that the lack of dignity is the point Berger is making. “There is no dignity in war,” or words to that effect. Sure, but there is dignity in life. And perhaps that is the most off-putting aspect of Berger’s adaptation, the emphasis on the horrors of war with very little to contrast against them. To be clear, it is not that the aforementioned scene undoes the film; on the contrary, Berger’s adaptation is quite well-made, complete with the now-standard eye-popping tracking shot for war movies depicting a soldier running maddeningly through explosions and bullet fire while everyone around him falls or is blown up. The technical brilliance is there, which is why the film is winning awards (such as the 2023 BAFTA [British Academy Film Awards] for best film). The toilet scene is not the problem, but a symptom. The issue here is systemic, baked into the warp and woof of the whole motion picture, that seems oddly intent on cutting out all traces of what actually makes these characters humans, which seems to stand in complete contrast with the story Remarque originally told.
In a review of Berger’s film for Collider, Chase Hutchinson writes: “The only respite comes when Berger shows us the peace of nature, as if we are given a glimpse of what could be if such a war was not taking place. These moments of tranquility are brief, but their juxtaposition against just how infernal the violence is becomes pointed. The destruction is positioned as being unnatural and an affront against the surrounding world that becomes swallowed up.”6
Hutchinson is right in his analysis — he accounts for the two shots of the natural world that bookend Berger’s film. But the problem here is that the war is not bad because a few trees get splintered — that is, perhaps, bad, but that is not what makes us recoil; rather, it is not what should make us recoil — the horror is the erasure of the human beings, people with lives, and families, and friends (not just the ones made in the trenches), and histories. It is not the destruction of pretty things that makes war a travesty, but the destruction of the being with the ability to actually recognize the pretty things for what they are that should outrage us.
In other words, Milestone did not end his adaptation nearly one hundred years ago with a shot of an insect landing next to Paul’s dead body. Instead, he ends his film with Paul reaching for the beautiful creature and then shockingly, horrifically, being killed, because he understood what Remarque was saying in his original novel. Berger ends his film with Paul stabbed through the back with a bayonet, and some other nameless recruit pickpocketing his corpse. And this approach is supposed to make viewers sit back and think, “Wow, war is terrible! In the end, he is just another dead body.” Except that he is not — and that is what Remarque’s original text emphasizes. Even the book’s literal title, “Nothing New in the West,” is meant to be an irony that heightens this point, as it is lifted from a line in an official report at the end of the novel, after Paul has died.
Finding Empathy in the Trenches. One hundred years removed from the book’s publication, Berger’s film demonstrates just how much of a foothold secularism has in the arts. There is a grander metaphor here, one that discusses the advances in technology (i.e., “progress”) that have allowed filmmakers to create larger, more realistic, and more terrifying war films, and those advances being made alongside a persistent and steady march toward the shallowing out of human dignity. The same trends in the cultural zeitgeist that lead to the widespread thumbs-up of abortion is the same trend that leads to a Paul Bäumer with no family and a death without any acknowledgement of the human tendency to be irresistibly drawn to that which is good and beautiful despite the evil of human nature.
What has changed in our globalized culture in one hundred years? Well, some see more horror in the destruction of a tree than a human life and find a perfectly rational and scientific basis for it. But these trends are nothing new — the apostle Paul speaks of “the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2 NASB). Christians should not be surprised at this secularization, and a little outrage would be appropriate.
The thing that spooked the Nazis about Remarque’s book was not the “horrors of war,” or the destruction of the environment. It was the fact that through amateur poet-philosopher Paul Bäumer, Remarque emphasized human dignity to the point that he built a case for empathy. Paul could look at a man he had just killed and not just “compartmentalize” it, have a good cry, and then move on having lost a little bit of his innocence. No, the deed haunted him, and continued to haunt him. Despite what his friends told him, he could not “rationalize away” the fact that he had exploded an entire world, had robbed another human being of his dignity, and the idea that this is just what happens in war was not good enough for him. That is why, in death, Paul’s face registered an expression of relief, of gratefulness that the end had come and the burden had been lifted.
Roman Catholic philosopher David Baird understands the true value of Remarque’s text. He writes:
Even in modern industrial war he [Remarque] sees the ineradicable dignity of man: pound man into the mud or throw him into a war where every permutation of premature death, despair and degradation will obscure his interior man in layers ever thicker and harder to rinse away, but a discernable image will endure. It may not require a poet to discern the everlasting man in the profile of every damaged one, and it may not ultimately require words to represent him, yet he will be a kind of eternal poet who can gaze upon the blood-smeared face of his bayoneted foe and see a mirror of his self.7
This is something that should sound familiar to Christians. The apostle Paul reminds the Galatians to “do good to all people, and especially to those of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:9 NASB). He instructs the Roman Christians to “be at peace with all men,” so far as they could, and “never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:18-19 NASB).
Erich Maria Remarque demonstrated that real, human empathy was possible, even in the ungodly trenches of the Great War. And not just empathy with those on your side of the battlefield, but with those on the other side, as well. The literary Paul Bäumer shows that it is actually possible, even in wartime, to maintain in oneself and see in others that fundamental shape of human worth and dignity, that distant echo of Eden. The shame of it all is that Berger’s film works so passionately — however unintentionally — to silence it. —Cole Burgett
Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes for high school and college students in Bible exposition and systematic theology. He also writes extensively about theology and popular culture.
- Tom Brook, “Is There Any Such Thing as an ‘Anti-War Film’?” BBC, July 9, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20140710-can-a-film-be-truly-anti-war.
- For an excellent and comprehensive look at the history of the genre by a reputable film historian, check out Tim Dirks, “War Films,” Filmsite, https://www.filmsite.org/warfilms.html.
- Patrick Sauer, “The Most Loved and Hated Novel about World War I,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 16, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/most-loved-and-hated-novel-about-world-war-I-180955540/.
- Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 41.
- Edward Berger, quoted in Mark Salisbury, “Edward Berger Breaks Down Four Key Scenes from ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’: “The Battle Scenes Were Incredibly Complex,” Screen Daily, February 13, 2023, https://www.screendaily.com/features/edward-berger-breaks-down-four-key-scenes-from-all-quiet-on-the-western-front/5178907.article.
- Chase Hutchinson, “‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and the Tragic Futility of Anti-War Cinema,” Collider, October 28, 2022, https://collider.com/all-quiet-on-the-western-front-anti-war-films/.
- David Baird, “‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque,” Thinking Faith, August 1, 2014, https://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/all-quiet-western-front-erich-maria-remarque.