All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★★

"Man is a beast."

Edward Berger's version of All Quiet on the Western Front is a spellbinding nightmare reminding us of the horrors of war. It's more direct and experiential than Erich Maria Remarque's masterful novel or the Lewis Milestone's incredible 1930 adaptation of the material, both of which focus more on the idealism of the young German men and how it is shattered by the reality of combat on the Western Front in WWI. Berger wastes little time plunging us into a hell scape of random brutality where death can come from anywhere and at any moment. 

It's a place of mud and blood. A place where combatants hide in man made scars carved into the earth. Where risking a glance above the top often leads to instant death. The real horror comes from the chaotic role fortune plays on whether or not anyone lives to see another day. One can say that Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) is continually lucky to keep making it through. But there's nothing lucky about being in a situation where so many die fighting to take and retake a few hundred meters of territory. 

What the film does exceptionally well is show us that the people fighting are truly victims of a system that chews them up and spits them out. The politicians attempting to broker a peace (with the exception of Matthias Erzberger played by Daniel Bruhl) don't care about their lives. The allies are more interested in imposing humiliation and crushing reparations. German commanders want to push until
the last moment when the armistice hits, regardless of the extra lives lost. It's all so meaningless that one can't help but wonder what is wrong with a humanity that would ever allow it to happen, let alone again and again. 

Everything looks incredible here. The barbed wire, the sodden, churned earth. The craters that create an alien effect as though it's all happening on the moon, because it's hard to imagine it could happen here. But the most incredible sequence that best illustrates it all is when the tanks show up. The rumbling, shaking ground as the lumbering monstrosities crest the horizon line is reflected in the eyes of the terrified young men trying to make sense of what they are seeing. Amongst the tanks walk men with flamethrowers, spraying fiery orange death onto anyone not crushed into the mud by the treads or mercifully ended with a quick bullet. 

No movie can ever depict the full scope of awfulness of being in this situation (and perhaps we should be grateful of that), but All Quiet on the Western Front comes about as close as a movie can. On Remembrance Day, we should take a moment to think about all the people who lost their lives and be grateful that the guns fell silent, if only for awhile, 104 years ago on this day.

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