By Ben Konuch
Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles analyzing this adaption of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” This article examines the movie and its merit as a war film, while the first examines it as an adaption of the book.
“Modern warfare is like a game of chess. It’s never about the individual, it’s always about the whole. You will prove yourself worthy of your uniforms.”
War is hell. Anyone who has studied history extensively will know these words, probably having heard them again and again. For the Vietnam War, we have plenty of voices that are still speaking these words from their own experiences. For World War Two, we have less and less every day. But for World War One, that generation has been lost to us. That war has faded to be only words in a history book or a grainy picture or reel of film on the archive shelf of a library. That’s why Edward Berger’s take on “All Quiet on the Western Front” is so important. It’s a visual work of art that reminds us of the horror that war inflicts on all parties, that puts us into the mud and blood-soaked world of a hundred years ago where each pull of a trigger can bring disaster to another unknown yet personal face and all the lives around him.
We follow Paul (Feliz Kammerer), an idealistic young man who enlists with his friends and discovers the horrifying true nature of what modern warfare looks like. The combat in this film is shot like a horror movie, and I find myself dreading every time that haunting whistle blows to send our characters up and out of the trenches into the hell that would await them. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is unflinchingly brutal in its demonstrations of violence, getting as close to reality as I’ve ever seen in a World War One film. There’s one particular battle sequence around the halfway point that is a harrowing, bloody, hectic display of what crossing No Man’s Land and trench warfare looked like, and in my opinion, is one of the single best battle scenes I’ve seen in a war film.
The sets and attention to historical detail are immaculately constructed. With cinematography headed by director of photography James Friend, every shot is captured and framed with a mastery of the camera that makes “All Quiet on the Western Front” simultaneously horrifying yet beautiful. Battle sequences are filmed like a nightmare, with a camera that follows every explosion, shot and stab with frightening intensity. But at the same time, the quiet moments that follow these men are also depicted beautifully, with gorgeous scenery shots as the soldiers explore a quiet forest or a lighthearted moment when the main characters can finally enjoy a well-cooked meal and well-earned smiles.
Additionally, the sound design adds to the film immensely. Volker Bertelmann’s musical score hangs over the film like a heavy cloud, giving a tint of darkness to the whole experience that never quite lets you relax. The cloud lifts in certain calm scenes, giving the audience and characters moments of genuine happiness. But in the battles or the moments of pain or loss, Bertelmann’s score accents each moment with an accompanying auditory experience that is truly unique and manages to pair exceptionally well with the visuals and the themes of the storytelling.
The acting in “All Quiet on the Western Front” is where the heart of the film, and its message, shines through. Felix Kammerer delivers one of the best performances of the year as Paul, and to find out he had only one small role in a film decades ago before this debut absolutely astounds me. Kammerer starts off playing the wide-eyed excitement of a young man enthusiastic to prove himself in war, and as Paul’s innocence is slowly stripped away, Kammerer portrays the shifts with heartbreaking sincerity.
The way he loses the brightness in his eyes, the numbness that comes over him every time he and his company are ordered into combat, and the way he manages to embody an empty shell the character shows the psychological effect that war has on the individual. We visually see the stages of Paul’s humanity shift, all the way from the beginning innocence, to the shocked horror when he first sees war for what it is, then to the pained numbness of a year of death and survival, to the moment when everything falls away and Paul sees with opened eyes the horror of what the death he has dealt out looks like.
Put all these pieces together and you get a beautifully filmed, historically accurate masterpiece of a film that shows the horror and the tragedy of a war often forgotten. Fantastic acting brings a personal layer of loss to the story, and brutal battle scenes never pull punches as they throw our characters through the trauma and suffering of war time and time again. It’s a harrowing, tragic, sometimes immensely uncomfortable watch, but as a standalone war film, I’ve seen nothing like it in its depictions of the period and the way a soldier can lose and grapple with his humanity. “All Quiet on the Western Front” doesn’t just show a war, it shows the personal experience and the personal cost that war takes from each and every soldier, and how the cycle of violence and ignorance can continue if we neglect to see war from the personal perspective.
I give “All Quiet on the Western Front” a 10/10.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is now streaming on Netflix.
Ben Konuch is a sophomore strategic communications student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and failing horribly at volleyball with his friends.
Images courtesy of Netflix