I have never thought of my educational experience as being special in any manner, aside from attaining a terminal degree. I say this because I am guessing that like many of you, I had to read Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1929. I am also surmising that I was not the only one to skim through it, despite my interest in history. My memory does not tell me whether I did this in high school or my first years in college, but I recall sitting outside on a blazing hot summer’s day as only Florida can deliver trying to slog my way through its pages. I did this while helping keep freeloaders from parking in the lot of a building where my mom worked on the beach. When you are young and stupid and attempting to get through such assignments, you often turn to the movie version. I never made it through the 1979 film, the first color adaptation of the book, which had Ernest Borgnine in it of all people. However, Netflix recently delivered a new rendering. I was confused in some parts, but as the book means to do, it delivers on the message of the utter stupidity of war.
My confusion with All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) has nothing to do with the fact that it is a German made film, which becomes apparent from the outset. Instead, we are treated to a fox family in their den. In fact, there are a number of nature shots sprinkled throughout that I can only guess at their meaning. Perhaps they mean something if you grew up in Germany? Getting past that, my biggest source of confusion is the fact that they set the movie as starting in 1917. If you know your history and literature, you will note that the book begins with the outset of the so-called Great War in 1914. I am guessing they did this so as to make the film shorter and so they would not have to change uniforms as the German Army did halfway through the war. At any rate, the film reminds you of that war by showing a random German soldier, scared witless during what seems like his first time in the trenches. He is somehow motivated to go and attack the French positions as ordered, and dies in the process. His uniform is taken off his corpse to be sent back to Germany and recycled. This is how we get to our main character, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer). He is a seventeen-year-old kid who has to lie to get into the army, eagerly joining his classmates for the opportunity to go to the front and fight for the Fatherland. He receives the uniform of our first soldier (and is a huge foreshadowing alert if I ever saw it), and not long thereafter is in France and on his way into the trenches. He quickly finds that war is not the glorious occupation he thought it would be, and that Paris was a long way off. Instead, their trench is hit by a heavy artillery bombardment and he barely survives the first day. Many of his friends from school are not so lucky. We then fast forward eighteen months, which is significant because this puts him close to the end of the war, which ends at the eleventh hour on November 11th, 1918. By this time, he and a small group of survivors in his unit have formed a close-knit group. Because World War I was a daily grind of relatively the same thing over-and-over, I will spare you some of the details. The filmmakers did this with their adaptation of the book, so why can I not do the same? They also decided to throw in details not covered in the novel, such as the ongoing debate in the German high command and government as to whether or not the war should be ended. The general staff is firmly against giving up the effort, believing that another push will give them the edge. The peace party is led by Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), who, particularly since the death of his son, sees the signing of the armistice is the only option, despite its flaws. He is the one that leads the German delegation on the train and affixes their signatures to the document to end “the war to end all wars” as it was then called. If only it were true, and that includes at that time. Shortly before this, Paul had been part of an attack that had been brutally repulsed by the French. He had become separated, and barely makes it back to friendly lines alive. The assault results in the death of many of his remaining comrades. The one remaining is a long-time veteran of the trenches and the man who had taught Paul much of what he knows as a soldier: Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch). The two had formed a bond while serving together, and when Paul returns, the two are part of a celebratory atmosphere. This is because word has come down that the armistice has been signed and that hostilities will cease in a few hours. That morning, Kat and Paul decide to try a local farm one more time to get food, but Kat is mortally wounded in the process, dying on the way to the hospital. Further, the generals have ordered one last pointless attack before the official ceasefire takes effect. Within minutes of the eleventh hour, Paul is killed during the assault on the French position.
If that ruined All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) for you, then I would tell you that maybe you should have paid more attention in your literature courses. It is a sad movie, of course. Because I knew the ending, and could tell that they decided to take some liberties with the story, I wondered for a time if they were going to change Paul’s fate. I mean, why not? Would this have had less of an impact had they done so? There are several other scenes throughout that speak to the sheer awfulness of armed conflict, particularly during World War I. One of the things I appreciate from a Catholic perspective is how it handles what war does to people. There is a particularly prominent moment when Paul kills a French soldier up close while they are stuck in an artillery crater. When the sounds of the man’s suffering becomes too much for him, he is filled with remorse and tries to help. Earlier, there is a general statement about how battle turns men into beasts. This directly contravenes God’s law because He did not make us to be like beasts, let alone slaughter one another on an industrial scale. There is an interesting snippet from a film from 1916 called Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, directed by D. W. Griffith. It is nearly unwatchable, but apropos of All Quiet on the Western Frontthere is a moment at the end where God is shining from the heavens and inducing the two sides in the war to throw down their arms and embrace one another in brotherhood. It is no mistake that Griffith made this in the middle of the war. If you want a real-life counterpart to this notion, on Christmas Eve of 1914 a truce was called between both sides, triggered by the Germans singing one of the more beautiful carols “Silent Night.” It was a temporary stop to the madness of war. God would rather have such moments last forever.
All things considered, I would take All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) over some of the other movies that cover the same events of recent memory, like 1917 (2019). There were some parts in All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) that stuck out in a strange way, like the random nature scenes. Nonetheless, it is a hard film to watch, even if it does have the right message.