By Josh Lewis
“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure” is how German writer Erich Maria Remarque opened All Quiet on the Western Front, his fictional recounting of the torturously bleak experience of serving in the trenches of WWI at the age of 18. The novel was previously adapted by Lewis Milestone in 1930 and once again for TV by Delbert Mann in 1979, but German director Edward Berger’s Netflix production marks the first attempt to produce this profoundly German story in its native language and country. The weight of that responsibility feels like both an asset and a detriment to the film, which is certainly handsomely scaled and crafted with the loud soundscape and digital technical bravura of other recent war films such as Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019), but is given a tone of almost mythic severity that at times rubs up against the haunting ugliness of the material.
Though the choice to traffic in the visual vocabulary of Hollywood war entertainment doesn’t always serve its messaging—one would think Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) would be a more fitting choice of stylistic mimicry—this is still an effectively grisly adaptation filled with real sadness and conviction about how much was lost over so little, and it does eventually accumulate in power when Berger gets out of the book’s way and simply stacks up the increasingly pointless carnage. To wit: cross-cutting between the lavish corridors and train carts of the “fat pig” generals who are at a remove from the mud-caked piles of boys who took their gas masks off too early, or a montage that details the on-the-ground mechanics of stripping frost-bitten battlefield corpses of their identification tags and clothes so they can be washed and repurposed for a fresh batch of idealistic teenagers about to be loaded on the conveyor belt of soon-to-be flammable, exploding meat sacks for the Fatherland. One sequence in particular stands out, as Berger makes space in the middle of a trench fight for the men to have a gluttonous feast in the enemy’s supply room. More than any other recent attempt at this type of film, this scene speaks to Remarque’s unglamorous depiction of base survival instincts under horrifying conditions as a deeper uniting factor for this generation of men than any sort of patriotic glory or heroic adventure.