The reality of modern war movies – or at least the good ones – is that they tend to be scary and exciting at the same time. You could say it’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 persists, for all its terror, destruction, and death, is that there is something in human nature that gravitates to war. Movies, in a way, perform it for us. But once again I’m talking about the good ones. There is no more powerful example than “Saving Private Ryan”. I have never seen a more thrilling war film, and I have never seen a war film that made me face, more memorably, the unspeakable fear and devastation of a blood-spattered war.
In contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” feels like an experience that has been scrubbed to the bone – morally, spiritually and dramatically. Based on Erich Mario 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 apocalypse. He did “1917”. The film’s hero Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is a student who, after three years of war, enlisted in the Imperial German Army to fight for his homeland. He is soon sent to the Western Front, a place where millions of soldiers have already died in what is essentially a murderous war where no turf changes hands.
During the course of the war, the “capture” of land on the Western Front was modest; the position of the front line never moved more than half a mile. So why did all the soldiers die? For no reason. Due to a tragic – one might say obscene – accident of history: that in the First World War the means of warfare fell between the older, “classical” mode of stationary combat and the new reality of killing at a distance made possible by technology. By the end of the war, 17 million men had fallen between these cracks.
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 don’t strike a chord with viewers the way they did a century ago. The bar for on-screen terror and gore has been raised much further. Edward Berger, the director of the new “All Quiet,” stages his war scenes in what have become standard existential bombs bursting in the ground, debris flying everywhere, war being hell because its violence is so random a method of merciless destruction. It does it competently, but not better; it does not begin to touch the level of imagination that dominated us in the war cinema of Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov. Paul and his fellow soldiers who have climbed out of the trenches are confronted by a merciless hail of bullets, face down in the mud, shot in the gut or head, attacked with bayonets and machetes. .
Yet the pale, kindly Paul, whose newly issued uniform has come off the corpse 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 mild-mannered young man, but inside he is a ruthless killer. Turning around to shoot one soldier and then knife another, he basically becomes a desperate action hero, and I only say that because I didn’t find his battlefield acumen particularly convincing. As a filmmaker, Berger wants to bring us “closer” to war, but the horror in “Silence on the Western Front” is pretty neat in your face and delivery. Maybe that’s why it’s numbing.
Great war movies are not reticent about mixing personal drama into combat. They present 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 that were some measure of film integrity. The soldiers, including Paul, are barely sketched, and you’re honestly relieved when the film cuts to conventional scenes of German Vice Chancellor Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) trying to broker peace with the French generals who defeated the German army. Negotiations are one-sided; The French, who hold all the cards, want surrender on their terms. However, behind Erzberger we register the irreconcilable resentment of the German officers, which will of course be carried over into the next war.
Stanley Kubrick made the best trench warfare movie ever with “Walks of Fame” and he wasn’t shy about involving us in the real drama. “Quiet on the Western Front”, so even after the armistice, there is another combat episode that demonstrates, with over-emphasized tragic irony, that the body count in the First World War escalated for no reason. Any reasonable person would agree with that. Still, “Silence on the Western Front” is a war film as a thesis statement. He continues to push his point so you’re less broken than empty.