Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Worst Version of “All Quiet…”


Today marks the anniversary of the publishing of the greatest anti-war novel in 1929.  A new movie brings the book to the silver screen for the third time.  Does the movie deserve all the applause?

                I had every reason to enjoy the new “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  I had been waiting for it for about a decade.  When I first read it was going to be made, it was to star Daniel Ratcliffe.  Granted, that was casting that caused some concern, but if John Boy Walton could do a good job as Paul Baumer, then so could Harry Potter.  As the years passed by, Daniel Bruhl (an outstanding German actor) was attached to the project.  That was certainly an upgrade.  Now, if they could just make the damn movie!  Finally, Netflix stepped in and we got a German version of the German novel.

  Erich Marie Remarque wrote the most famous anti-war novel and published it on Jan. 31, 1929.  It has sold more than 20 million copies.  It was made into the most famous anti-war movie which was released in 1930.  A version was made for TV in 1979.  The 2022 has been lauded as the best version.  And several critics (and many viewers) have praised it as the most realistic war movie ever made.  It currently has a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  It has been nominated for 14 BAFTAs and 9 Oscars, including both Best Picture and Best International Feature.

If you have read my review, you know I find the movie greatly overrated.  The claims of the movie’s greatness has caused me to rewatch the film and while it is a decent war movie, it certainly does not deserve the accolades.  There are two big problems with the film.  First, the fighting may be realistic (although I would suggest what people are praising as realistic is actually simply more graphic deaths than viewers are used to seeing in a war movie) in its combat scenes, but the plot has some very unrealistic developments.  Second, it is laughable that the movie carrries the title of the novel, because there is very little from Remarque’s book in the movie.  It is infuriating to read reviews that say that the director and screenwriter “decided to stay as faithful to the original source as possible.”  That is pure bullshit and had to come from someone who never read the book or saw the 1930 version. In fact, I would be surprised if the director and screenwriter read the book.    Here are some observations I have about the movie.  (Spoiler alert)

Here are the scenes that were inspired by the novel:

1.  A teacher gives a speech to a group of students, urging them to go to war.  C  In the book and both earlier movies, the speech is delivered in a classroom session and is less of a demand that the boys enlist.  It highlights a core group of friends that the book will follow.

2.  The soldiers are in a bunker during a bombardment.  They quickly start to panic and one runs out and is killed by a shell.  The roof caves in, Paul is covered up.  F  In the book, the men are under bombardment for days.  The veterans take it in stride, but a couple of the newly arrived soldiers crack.  Nothing happens to the bunker and the soldiers exit when the bombardment lifts because they know the French will be coming.

3.  Paul and Kat go foraging. (They are returning from the rear, so they should not be starving.)  Paul talks Kat into it.  Kat climbs over the wall of a farmstead to steal a goose.  He barely escapes and is fired on.  D  In the book, Kat is an ace scrounger.  He doesn’t need to be talked into it.  The goose is running around in a yard when Kat grabs it.  There is no encounter with a farmer.

4.  Kropp looks at a poster of a man and a woman.  He takes the woman half of the poster and hangs it in the trench.  D  In the book, Kropp and Baumer view the poster and banter about it.  Kropp tears the half with the man off and leaves the girl on the wall.

5.  Franz approaches three French girls and they invite him home.  End of scene.  He returns with a scarf.  F-  In the book, it is Paul, Kropp, and Lear who visit the girls.  The book covers the encounter with the girls while the boys are swimming and then covers them visiting the girls with food.  

6.  Paul is caught in a shell crater.  He stabs a French soldier several times and then is stuck with the dying man.  He tries stuffing his mouth with dirt, but the Frenchman lingers.  When Paul tries to deal with the wounds, the soldier dies.  He opens his billfold and learns he is a “typographer”.  F  In the book, the incident occurs at night when Paul is on patrol.  The scene has Paul apologizing to the corpse and promising to write his wife.  He thinks of the nature of war that made them enemies.

7.  The men demand twice the rations because they have half the men.  The cook gives it to them with hardly an argument.  D  In the movie, there is a much longer argument and an officer steps in to side with the hungry men

8.  After the war has been declared over, Paul and Kat go foraging to the same farm that they barely escaped from earlier in the movie.  Paul gets away with some eggs (instead of grabbing a duck) and runs with the farmer firing at them again.  When Kat goes into some woods to urinate, he encounters the farmer’s son, who shoots him in the chest.  Paul carries Kat to the hospital, but when he gets there Kat is proclaimed dead from loss of blood.  F  The war is nearing an end when Kat is hit in the leg with shrapnel.  Paul carries him to the hospital and is shocked to learn Kat is dead from a minor wound.  It turns out that Kat took another piece of shrapnel, this time in the head, while being carried.  This highlights the randomness of death and how you could survive all manner of dangers and yet die from bad luck

9.  The 2022 movie goes bombastic and it makes the title a joke.  Paul is killed in hand-to-hand combat in the last attack.  He dies right before the armistice.   C   In the book, Paul dies an undisclosed death near the end of the war.  The title of the book refers to his death.  Remarque is pointing out individual deaths were meaningless.  The 1930 version has him reaching for a butterfly and being killed by a sniper.  The 1979 has him sketching a bird when the sniper fires.   


As you can see, the few times the movie tries to replicate the book, it does so poorly.  Several of these scenes are not even crucial scenes from the book.  So, the decision to go with them instead of more iconic scenes is puzzling.  A third version of the book should have brought the novel to a new generation that is not familiar with the book or the two previous movies.  The film utterly fails in this respect.  Here are some crucial elements of the book that this version does not cover, but the other two movies did.

1.  There is not training camp sequence.  There is no Himmelstoss, who is a great villain.  Paul and his classmates are shown signing up and the next scene has them going to the front

2.  Paul does not go home on leave.  This sequence establishes the disconnect between the civilian world and the front.  Paul does not have his heart-tugging moments with his dying mother or his frustrating interaction with his father and his friends who argue about how to win the war.  He does not confront his teacher.  And we don’t get Paul feeling he is more at home at the front than in his hometown

3.  Paul and Albert do not spend time in a hospital where the plight of the wounded is highlighted.

4.  Kimmerich does not have his leg amputated in a ghastly hospital setting.  Mueller does not get his boots.  (In the 1930 version, the boots are passed on as each wearer is killed.  This version used a woman’s scarf for that.)

5. There is no battle where Paul takes refuge in a grave.

6.  There is no wounded horses scene.

7.  There is very little of the guys sitting around talking.

8.  There are no wounded crying out from no man’s land.

9.  Paul does not visit Kemmerich’s mother and lie to her about her son’s death.

10.  There is little character development.  The movie is totally dominated by Paul and Kat.  It is a buddy film.  Paul does not go from an enthusiastic fool to a wizened veteran.  He stays the same through the film.  In the book, Kat is mentor to all the men.  He is like their sergeant although he doesn’t have the rank.  In this movie, he is basically just an older soldier. 


But besides leaving out key scenes from the book, the movie replaces them with inferior scenes.  Of the 147 minute running time, about 20 minutes is devoted to either the diplomat Erzberger or Gen. Friedrichs.  Those 20 minutes would have been much better used to cover more of the book. 

Those who have read my reviews know that I am most upset when a war movie is unrealistic.  I don’t really care about bad accents and I don’t count rivets.  But I care deeply whether a movie makes sense.  This version had me shaking my head numerous times.  Obviously, most critics and viewers did not realize when the  movie was laughable or they don’t care.  So, if you don’t care, don’t read on.

1.  The movie opens with the Germans under fire in their trench.  It becomes clear that the French are attacking them, and yet, the Germans are ordered out of the trench to meet the French in no man’s land.  This does lead to a visceral melee that helps convince some that the movie is showing a realistic battle.  However, if the Germans were being attacked, they would not have left the trench.  Trenches were difficult to take, so why give up that advantage by leaving it? 

2.  The German bunkers were very well constructed.  The chances that the roof would collapse are very slim.  Paul is found in a hole with planks nicely arranged on top of him.  Hilarious

3.  After Paul is rescued, the scene shows Germans working outside the trench in daylight.  There would not have a been a truce to bury the dead in 1917.

4.  Bombardments would last up to a week. The movie shows them lasting minutes.  Veterans like Paul would not have panicked so easily.

5.  Franz would not have been the only one to go talk to the French women.

6.  There are long stretches where the unit is far away from the front.

7.  A whole company of new recruits died from poison gas.  Poison gas usually disabled, rather than killed.  Plus, no one was wounded?  They ALL died?

8.  They go over the top without a preparatory bombardment.  This would have been unlikely

9.  Tanks are shown counterattacking.  They were not usually used for this because it took a lot of time and effort to get them in position for an attack.  It would have been very bad luck for Paul and his comrades to attack an area that just so happened to be where a tank attack was planned.

10.  The tanks shown are the French Saint-Chamond, obviously chosen because they look bad-ass.  I won’t quibble about the fact that they were not being used in November, 1918.  They are rendered accurately.  A tank round hits in the trench from about 30 yards.  That trajectory would have been impossible.  A tank rolls into a communications trench. It would most likely have gotten stuck.  One reason for discontinuing the Saint-Chamond was its trouble crossing trenches.

11.  Paul and Kat bring food to the wounded Tjaden.  They don’t offer to feed him although he is lying on his back.  They take their eyes off him and he stabs himself with a fork.

12.  Paul and Kat go foraging even though they had just had a double ration.  They talk of going home and yet they risk that by targeting a French farm where they had barely survived before.  Suddenly there is snow covering the ground.

13.  The German soldiers celebrate the end of the fighting.  Suddenly, the general gives a speech from a balcony (thus reminding the soldiers of how out of touch all the generals were).  He starts by telling them soon they will be returning home, thus reinforcing their belief the war is over.  And then he incredibly makes a case for one more attack.  In fact, he orders it.  There is no way in hell all those men would have meekly gone to their deaths. Who wants to be the last to die in a lost war.  (Apparently Paul.)  The movie tries to get around this by having a few men shot for refusing, but the vast majority would have refused.  This was a classic mutiny scenario

14.  The general is a caricature of a WWI general.  Bald.  With a mean dog.  He lives in a chateau eating great food.  He loves war.  I think the general was a way for the director and screenwriter to emphasize the callous leadership in the war and the gulf between the soldiers and their generals.  However, this trope has appeared in many WWI movies, like “Paths of Glory”. 

15.  For the third time, we get an almost identical tracking shot of Paul running across no man’s land with men falling around him.  Once again, he takes shelter behind an object.  This time it’s a dead horse.  Once again, Paul has his face covered with mud.  He spends most of the combat scenes with mud on his face.  The movie has Paul and his mates in the same trench through the war.  By 1918 there would have been a lot more movement with the German offensive and then the Allied counteroffensive pushing them back.  The combat in the movie is more appropriate for 1916.


I know this is a lot of carping, but I had to get it off my chest.  If you like the movie, that is fine.  But don’t tell me it is a great war movie and don’t think you don’t need to read the book now.  I pity the high school students who use this movie to write a book report about “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Narvik: Hitler’s First Defeat (2022)


                Netflix recently offered this movie for streaming.  It has gotten some good word of mouth and managed to reach the top ten of Netflix’s streamed movies.  With the success of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, we can expect to see more foreign movies being offered by the streaming giant.  This is a good thing, but quantity does not always mean quality.  The film is a Norwegian production directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg.  It covers the Battle of Narvik, which took place during the German invasion of Norway in April-May, 1940.  The Norwegians had little to be proud of in this campaign. One of the bright spots was the recapture of this important port.  As background, the movie explains that Norway was crucial to the German war effort because it got 85% of its iron ore from Sweden via Norway.  Much of those imports came through Narvik.

                It seems that Narvik was not aware of its importance and that it was a prime target because it was ill-prepared for an attack.  A Norwegian unit arrives the night before the attack, but there is no sense of urgency.  Corp. Gunnar Tofte (Carl Eggsgo) is allowed to go home for a quick visit because it is his son’s birthday.  He returns just in time for a Mexican standoff with recently landed German infantry on a pier.  His Norwegian commander, Col. Sundlo, avoids bloodshed by backing down.  Maj. Omdal is appalled and leads the unit out of town to a railway bridge which he intends to blow up.  Gunnar is put in charge of setting the charges.  Meanwhile, Gunnar’s wife Ingrid (Kristine Hartgen) is being forced to act as an interpreter for the Germans.  She is secretly aiding two British officials who were negotiating with the Germans until the Germans decided enough with the talking.  She manages to steal a map to let Maj. Omdal know where the German artillery positions are located.  However, she ends up as a collaborator.  Gunnar is captured, but is in the right place at the right time when a French force attacks the German trench that he has brought ammunition to.  He rejoins his unit and is heroic in the capture of a strategic hill.  He will be reunited with Ingrid when their home town is liberated.

                The movie takes a two-track approach by following Ingrid and Gunnar.  For you action lovers, be aware that 70% of the plot focuses on Ingrid.  Both characters battle adversity and they are clearly personifications of what Norwegian civilians and soldiers went through.  Well, Gunnar may not be a stereotype because he sees victory.  That’s more than most Norwegian soldiers could identify with.  Gunnar’s father plays a significant role as a Norwegian who greatly underestimates the Germans.  Major Omdal stands in for all the Norwegian leaders who refused to cave in to German demands to surrender without a fight.  He is definitely a fighter. The only German character who is developed is the man Ingrid interprets for.  Oddly, Consul Wussow is not a hissworthy Nazi.  He treats Ingrid well with only a hint of flirtation.  If this is the only movie you watch about the German invasion of Narvik, don’t assume he is a typical German. 

The Battle of Narvik was a rare bright spot in the defense of Norway.  It is no wonder it was chosen for a movie treatment.  Unfortunately, if you are not Norwegian, you will find it to be a very micro approach to the war.  The film leads with good background title cards about the situation before the war.  We learn the importance of Norway and specifically Narvik, but we learn little of what is happening in the rest of the country.  The title can be a bit deceiving because it implies the Battle of Narvik was the first victory of many.  In reality, the Battle of Narvik was virtually the only land victory for the Allies.  And the movie does not make it clear that it was a temporary victory.  It ends with a sappy, unrealistic conclusion to the rough few weeks that the Tofte family faced.

                The movie is dominated by Gunnar and Ingrid.  Ingrid’s is the more compelling story as she is faced to make a decision that will impact her family and friends.  It is a role that viewers can imagine themselves in her shoes and wonder what they would do.  I think most viewers won’t fault her decisions, although Gunnar does.  Gunnar’s arc is more of a standard war movie hero.  He risks his life to blow up the bridge.  He gets captured and enslaved.  He joins the French in clearing out a trench.  He sneakily takes out a German machine gun nest and a German artillery piece.  The combat scenes are good, but brief.  They are not graphic and do not attempt to immerse the viewer in the tumult of battle like many war movies since “Saving Private Ryan”.  The problem with Gunnar is we meet him as a soldier who goes AWOL and last see him as a deserter.  In between, he is heroic.  I think the screenwriter did not intend those bookends to be self-defeating, but the “happy ending” is whiplashing.  Eggsbo and Hartgen are satisfactory in their roles. 

                As far as history, the movie is too superficial and has too many time jumps of sometimes weeks to be good history.  In doing my research, I immediately determined that the real screen-worthy incidents associated with the Battle of Narvik were the ass-kicking naval battles between German and British destroyers.  The movie only alludes to these melees.  There was a Col. Sundlo who shamefully surrendered without a fight.  His unit did refuse to lay down their arms and proceeded out of the city to defend a railway bridge.  However, that unit was taken by surprise by the Germans and abandoned the position.  I saw no reference to blowing the bridge.  As far as the trench battle and the hill assault.  The Norwegians were joined by Allies, one of which was the French as seen in the film.  I found no information about the hill battle.  Gunnar is not based on a real person.  The city did fall fairly easily because the Allies had a force of over 24,000 facing only about 5,000 Germans.  The film has the Germans bombing the city, but it is a small force of German bombers.  In reality, the city is going to be bombed into rubble.

                I must admit I was disappointed in this movie.  It is nothing special.  The only thing I can recommend about it is it does have an interesting female character, so it is a decent war chick flick.  Fans of war movies should find it a decent time-waster.  It is more aimed at your average movie fan.  The same people who fawn over the new “All Quiet…”