It’s a reality of modern war movies—or, at least, the good ones—that they tend to be terrifying and exciting at the same time. You could say that’s a contradiction that grows out of the kinetic, larger-than-life nature of the film medium. Or you could say that it is a truth that expresses something fundamental about war: that the very reason war continues, for all its terror and destruction and death, is that there is something in human nature that is drawn to war. The films, in their way, act this out for us. Again, though, I’m talking about the good ones. There is no more powerful example than “Saving Private Ryan.” I have never seen a war film more thrilling, and I have never seen a war film that made me face, more memorably, the fear and devastation of an intangible, blood-spewing war.
In contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” feels like a stripped-down experience—morally, spiritually, and dramatically. Based on the 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, it’s not a film that tries to turn the famous meat-grinding horror of World War I trench warfare into some kind of “spectacle,” the way Sam Mendes’ video game apocalypse is. He did “1917”. The hero of the film, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), is a student who, three years into the war, joins the German Imperial Army to fight for the motherland. He is soon sent to the Western Front, a place where millions of soldiers have already gone to their deaths in an essentially murderous turf war where no turf changes hands.
During the war, there was little “capture” of land on the Western Front; the position of the front line did not move by more than half a mile. So why did all those soldiers die? For any reason. Due to a tragic – obscene – historical accident: in the First World War, the method of combat was caught between an older, “classic” method of standing combat and the new reality of long-range killing made possible by technology. By the end of the war, 17 million men had fallen between those cracks.
The 1930 Hollywood version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” directed by Lewis Milestone, is widely regarded as an anti-war landmark. But, of course, if you watch it now, the war scenes won’t make an audience shudder like they did a century ago. The bar for terror and carnage on screen has been raised way beyond that. Edward Berger, director of the new “All Quiet,” stages his war scenes in what have become standard existential bombs-exploding-in-the-ground, debris-flying-everywhere, war-is-hell-for-its-violence -is – a random means of miserable extinction. He does that skillfully, but not better than that; it does not begin to touch the level of imagination that has gripped us in the war cinema of Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov. Jumping out of the trenches, Paul and his fellow soldiers face a merciless hail of bullets, they are thrown face down in the mud, they are shot in the gut or in the head, bayonets and machetes attack them. .
Yet the pale, tender-hearted Paul, whose uniform has just come off the body of a fallen soldier (a point meant to illustrate the endless cycle of death in the First World War), somehow fights on and survives. He strikes us as a gentle young man, yet there is a ruthless killer inside him. Swirling to shoot one soldier, then stabbing another, he becomes, in essence, a hopeless action hero, and I put it that way only because I didn’t find his acumen on the battlefield particularly convincing. Berger, as a filmmaker, wants to bring us “closer” to war, but the horror in “All Quiet on the Western Front” is in your face and also rather neat in its presentation. Maybe that’s why it feels numb.
The great war films are not reticent about mixing personal drama into the fighting. They feature characters that are terrifying 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 sincerity. The soldiers, including Paul, are barely sketched in, and you’re glad when the film cuts to the conventional scenes of the German vice chancellor, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), as he tries to secure peace with the French generals who have angered the German army. The discussions are one-sided; the French, who hold all the cards, want to surrender on their terms. But we register, behind Erzberger, the never-say-die anger of the German officers, which will of course be brought forward to the next war.
Stanley Kubrick, with “Paths of Glory,” made what is still the greatest film about trench warfare, and he wasn’t shy about including us in real drama. “All Quiet on the Western Front” continues, so even once the armistice is struck, there is still another combat event, all to show, with a tragic irony highlighted too much, that the body count in the First World War keeps increasing 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 continues to make its point, leaving you less broken than empty.