All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★★★½

When our protagonist, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), gets his uniform, he notices there is a nametag on there. His clothes used to belong to someone. He points it out, only to find out the clothes were given away and he can tear the nametag off. When he throws it away, it lands on a pile of countless nametags. You will see whose name is on that tag, and within the next ten minutes, you will forget it, as I did.

It is clear that these young, newly enlisted soldiers are expendable. None of them has any idea of what war truly is. They believe in the patriotic cause they fight for. They have the preconceived notions that war is a fun adventure, and they'll come out of it as heroes. They have hopes and dreams. They believe they'll be safe and come home in one piece. Once they finally enter the battlefield, those hopes are shattered. When the first bombs drop, the adrenaline kicks in, the brave facade drops and the fear, cowardice, shock and anguish on their faces reveal their true emotions. This is not what they imagined but it's too late. They are not heroes or villains. Just men trying to survive. But most of them are doomed. They're only delaying the inevitable unless luck is on their side. Some deaths are instantaneous, while others are prolonged, drawn out and painful. And the further they fight not for the cause but for their own lives, the more they lose their humanity until they're like savage animals. Increasingly disconnected from society and human connection and more drawn to their inherently violent instincts. No matter who survives, all of them will be left destroyed by the war.

As the war goes on, continuing its path of destruction, casualties and chaos, one question emerges in the minds of these young men: what is the point of it all? So many dead over little progress or advancement achieved on the western front. And for what? All for a nationalistic, prideful agenda that does more harm than good. Even when the characters try to explain or comprehend the purpose of it all, there will never be a satisfying or simple answer. The efforts - and the war itself - are futile.

Edward Berger's All Quiet on the Western Front goes through familiar territory, and what it has to offer thematically isn't surprising. Nevertheless, it remains powerful in depicting the psychological, physical and emotional trauma caused by the effects of war and how there is nothing to gain from it. The timeliness only makes the narrative further meaningful. It also comes down to the execution and Berger's direction goes all-out in creating the war sequences. There's nothing glamorous about the onscreen violence or fighting. Just pure, unromanticised brutality. Its exploration of the trenches and battlefields makes way for endless paths of inescapable horror. Its sounds are designed to spike tension and paranoia, dwelling into the visceral aggression of artillery fire and the suffering of its characters. Its technical elements are not to impress but to shock, terrify and captivate, transforming these characters' realities into absolute nightmares. It recreates the reality that millions of soldiers died in. They remain remembered for their service but what about who they were, and which history has long forgotten about? It remembers that these men are not at fault here but rather the orders put forward by their superiors and the cruel, dehumanising political systems that lacked empathy. The people in charge only cared about themselves while everybody else suffered. Even when the outcome of the war is made final, no one wins.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a devastating assault on the senses and a relentlessly bleak experience, one that left me emotionally drained and hopeless, but it acknowledges its characters' suffering, their emotions, their pain, and who they were. It is an imperfect film, as it introduces a flash-forward storyline that disrupts the overall momentum and its score is occasionally overbearing. But it is a film that stays true to the spirit of Erich Maria Remarque's source material. It is furious, and it is justified in its emotionally driven, maximalist filmmaking because ultimately, like the novel and the anti-war films preceding it, All Quiet on the Western Front forces us to confront the horrors of war and history, and shows us that they cannot be ignored.

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