It’s a fact of modern war movies – or at least the good ones – that they tend to be terrifying and exciting at the same time. You could argue that this is a contradiction that stems from the larger-than-life kinetic nature of the film medium. Or you could say it is a fact that expresses something fundamental about war: that the real reason that war continues, for all its terror and devastation and death, is that there is something in human nature so drawn to war. Movies, in their own way, represent this to us. Again, though, I’m talking about the good guys. There is no stronger example than Saving Private Ryan. I’ve never seen a more exciting war movie before, nor have I seen a war movie that has made me face, unforgettable, the unspeakable fear and devastation of war.
By contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western FrontIt feels like an experience stripped to the bone—morally, spiritually and dramatically. Based on the 1928 novel by director Erich Maria Remarque, it’s not a movie that attempts to turn the infamous Meat Grinder horror of World War I trench warfare into a kind of ‘scene’, the way it was By Sam Mendes in the video game apocalypse “1917” he did. The hero of the film, Paul Boomer (Felix Kamerer), a student who, after three years of war, enlists in the Imperial German Army to fight for the motherland. He is soon sent to the Western Front, and is A place where millions of soldiers have already died in what is essentially a murderous war for influence where there is no interchange of hands between influence.
Over the course of the war, the “grabbing” of land on the Western Front was minimal. The front line position did not move more than half a mile. Why did all these soldiers die? with no reason. Because of a tragic historical incident – one might say obscene -: that in the First World War, the means of combat were sandwiched between the old “classical” style of stationary combat and the new reality of long-distance killing made possible by technology. By the end of the war, 17 million men had fallen between those cracks.
The 1930s Hollywood version of Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” is an anti-war landmark. But, of course, if you watch it now, the scenes of war will not make the audience shiver as they did a century ago. The standard of terrorism and massacres on screen has been raised much further. Edward Berger, the new director of “All Quiet,” depicts his war scenes in what have become the standard existential bombshell – exploding in the ground, debris flying everywhere, War is Hell because its violence is – the random mode of ruthless extermination. It does it efficiently, but no better than that; He did not begin to touch the level of fantasy that captured us in the war cinema of Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov. Emerging from the trenches, Paul and his colleagues faced a ruthless barrage of bullets, were submerged in the mud face down, shot in the guts or in the head, and attacked with spears and machetes.
However, the pale, kind-hearted Paul, who has removed his new uniform from the corpse of a fallen soldier (a point meant to illustrate the endless cycle of death in World War I), somehow fights and survives. He hits us when he was a mean young man, yet inside him there is a ruthless killer. As he shoots a soldier, then another knife, he becomes, in essence, a desperate action hero, and I only put it that way because I didn’t find his battlefield acumen particularly compelling. Berger, as a director, wants to bring us closer to war, but the horror in “All Quiet on the Western Front” lies in your face and also systematically in the view. Maybe that’s why you feel numb.
Great war movies aren’t conservative about incorporating character drama into combat. It features sharp personalities and is defined as a scene of violence. But the new movie “All Quiet on the Western Front” is two and a half hours of dramatic oversimplification, as if this somehow bargained for the film’s integrity. The soldiers, including Paul, are hardly drawn, and you honestly feel relieved when the movie turns to the traditional scenes of German Vice-Chancellor, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), trying to broker peace with the French generals who’ve defeated the German army. One-sided negotiations. The French, who have all the cards, want to surrender on their terms. But we record, beyond Erzberger, the violent and merciless resentment of the German officers, which, of course, will carry on into the next war.
With “Paths of Glory,” Stanley Kubrick made what remains the greatest film about trench warfare, and he wasn’t shy about involving us in the actual drama. “All Quiet on the Western Front” sways, so that even after the conclusion of the armistice there is still another ring of combat, all to prove, with the tragic irony overly emphasized, that the body count of the First World War kept escalating for no reason. Any reasonable person would agree. However, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a war movie as a thesis statement. He keeps making his point, making you less shattered from the void.