Well, the day has finally arrived. More than five years after I first heard of a remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, it is now streaming on Netflix. It is a German film and is correctly entitled “Im Westen Nichts Neuss.” This is appropriate because the novel by Erich Remarque is about German infantrymen in WWI. The previous two versions – Lewis Milestone's Best Picture winner and the 1979 made-for-TV movie, were American pictures. Both did not show an American bias, but this new version promised to be better at showcasing the hardships German soldiers went through. Edward Berger directed with an undisclosed, but probably hefty, Netflix budget. Berger is a noted TV series director in Germany. He co-wrote the screenplay. The film was shot in Czechoslovakia. It has been submitted by Germany for consideration for a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the next Oscars.
The movie opens with a warning of “strong bloody war violence and grisly images”. You had me at “bloody”. A den of foxes in a woods shows the influence of Terance Malick (“The Thin Red Line”) on the cinematography (and the view that war does not harm wildlife and forests). The camera moves to corpses littering no man’s land and then we are in the trench for a “Paths of Glory” journey through the trench pre-attack. The over the top includes the oft-seen soldier killed as he climbs the ladder. The “Paths” influence continues as we track a soldier named Heinrich as he avoids the random deaths to reach the French trench where he is last seen using his entrenching tool for hand-to-hand combat. It’s a great combat scene, but sadly brief. The revelation that Heinrich was killed starts a series of scenes moving his uniform from his corpse to women washing all the dead men’s uniforms to seamstresses repairing them to Paul (Felix Kammerer) and his school mates being handed them. The boys are thrilled with their threads of glory. The movie forgoes the usual boot camp segment to rush them to the front seemingly ill-prepared. It is spring 1917. Their first job is baling out the trench because of the constant rain. Ludwig speaks for them all when he grumbles: “Somehow this is not how I imagined it.” A sentiment soldiers of every war would agree with.
The rest of the movie enlightens those who are not familiar with the Great War with scenes that reflect common soldier experiences. The film makes an effort to bring something new to the table. I mentioned the use of the entrenching tool as a weapon. Paul has to collect dog tags from the dead. A unit of replacements are victims of gas. But for the most part, there is little that hasn’t been shown in other movies, especially the other two versions. Davis clearly aimed his movie at Netflix viewers who would be seeing their second WWI movie (the other being “1917”). The big difference is this film intercuts with the politics of the last part of the war. Daniel Bruhl (who was originally tabbed for the Paul character but got aged out by the time production began) plays Matthias Erzberger, a Social Democrat (insert hissing from the generals) who is in contact with French Gen. Foch. He is attempting to arrange an armistice. This subplot necessitates Paul making it to the end of the war. This results in one of the worst endings of any prestigious war movie.
I recently watched the other versions of “All Quiet” for a comparison of scenes to each other and to the book. I also listened to the book (the Audible version is outstanding). It is one of my favorite novels and I have seen the movies at least four times each. I couldn’t wait to add the new movie to my project. Since the two earlier versions are both very good movies that cover the book well, I was intrigued to see how the new movie would handle the book. Early word was that Davis’ version was outstanding and a worthy challenger to the other two. The trailer had a lot of war movie fans salivating. I am sorry to report you can towel off.
I have had a hard time deciding how to approach this review. Do I review it as a WWI movie or do I review it as an “All Quiet on the Western Front” movie? So, I’ll do both. As a WWI movie, it is logical to compare it to “1917”. That film was overrated, but had the amazing cinematography to set it apart. It is a much better movie than this movie. The only strength is the combat scenes. One of them features French tanks and flamethrowers and is as graphic as the warning says. This was an odd creative decision because if Davis meant his film to be the 21st Century version of the novel brought to screen, he created an R-rated movie that students can not watch. The rest of the movie has a poor flow to it. Scenes end abruptly. But the biggest problem is the Erzburger subplot brings the film to screeching halts whenever it leaves Paul and his mates. My theory was the film did not want to lose its star Daniel Bruhl, so his lame political machinations were added. Catastrophically, the creation of this subplot was responsible for the inexcusable final chapter for Paul. (Think “We Were Soldiers”, but worse.)
When I did my usual research, I looked at Wikipedia. It says the movie has received “critical acclaim for faithfulness to the source material.” You have got to be f’in kidding me. If you were to see this movie with a different title, you would be hard-pressed to realize that it was another version of the novel. Any student using this movie for a book report instead of reading the book will surely get a big fat F. I would have to theorize that Davis watched the other two versions and decided he could not compete. Of course, he could have taken the attitude that many haven’t seen the other two, so he would cover the main scenes and possibly better them. Nope. Other than Paul and Kat (Albrecht Schuch), the other characters barely register. The movie is essentially a buddy film, not a buddies film. Amazingly, most of the iconic scenes from the 1930 film are absent and some of the ones that are recreated are minor scenes. The few times that the movie uses the book, the scenes are far inferior to the other films. For example, the charming liaison with the three French girls does not involve a river and only Frantz Muller goes! The camera does not go with him. My favorite scene did make it - Paul and the wounded Frenchman in the shell crater. This being the 21st Century, Paul stabs him 6 times! The movie dispenses with Paul’s anguished response to what he has done. Don’t hold your breath for the muddy field, the beat-down of Himmelstoss, the graveyard, Kimmerich’s boots (this movie moves a scarf from soldier to soldier), the Catholic hospital. Paul does not return home on leave! So much for contrasting the home front delusions with the realities of the front. Instead, cover the disagreements between the generals and the politicians. Yawn.
As far as the acting, you will read some touting of Kammerer, but when you are out-acted by Richard Thomas… The rest of the cast is not even well-known in Germany. They must have saved money by cutting Himmelstoss, Kimmerich, Kantorek, Detering. Kropp and Muller are blink and you miss them. Bruhl is misused in a role that calls on him to mope. Technically the movie is eye-opening. The combat features tracking shots and puts you in the middle of no man’s land. The deaths are blood-chilling in their randomness. When the soldiers reach the trench, all humanity is lost. Wounded and unthreatening still gets you shot or bayoneted. This is not a movie for children. Although oddly, there is no swearing.
I don’t want to discourage you from seeing the movie. Watch it and make up your own mind. Keep in mind this reviewer is very familiar with the previous movies and the book, so I am passionate about the subject. But I have seen hundreds of war movies and many WWI movies, so I feel I can weigh in on whether this movie holds up to the better movies in the subgenre. If you have not seen "The Lost Battalion”, “Beneath Hill 60”, “Paths of Glory”, “Journey's End”, and “Gallipoli”, watch them ahead of this. If you want a movie from the German perspective, try “Westfront 1918”. And please watch the other two versions.
GRADE = C (compared to other WWI movies)
GRADE = F (compared to 1930 & 1979)