All Quiet On The Western Front (Review) – An Anti-War Movie For A New Generation

DIRECTOR: Edward Berger

CAST: Daniel Brühl, Albrecht Schuch, Felix Kammerer, Moritz Klaus, Aaron Hilmer, Edin Hasanović, Devid Striesow, Sebastian Hülk

RUNNING TIME: 147 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A group of young German soldiers fighting in the First World War are exposed to the true horrors of conflict…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

War is hell – but you knew that already. Nearly every war movie on the planet has come to that conclusion, and with the conflict in Ukraine still raging on it’s unlikely we’re going to get a shortage of anti-war media any time soon. However, for as oft-repeated a message as it carries, All Quiet on the Western Front earns its statement as an anti-war drama, not just because it’s based on one of the very first pieces of anti-war literature from 1929 by Erich Maria Remarque (which has been adapted a few times prior, including the 1930 film that won the third-ever Academy Award for Best Picture), but also because it’s one of the bleakest war movies for some time.

Adapted for the first time in the novel’s native German, director and co-writer Edward Berger’s take on the story begins in 1917, three years into the Great War, as 17-year-old Paul (Felix Kammerer) and his close buddies enthusiastically sign up to the Imperial German Army, and are quickly shipped off to the trenches in Northern France. Needless to say, their romanticized version of war very quickly comes to a grinding halt when the boys witness first-hand the catastrophic and gruesome carnage that awaits them on the battlefield, and as the months go by with barely any real progress, Paul and company are helpless as those around them are shot, stabbed, blown to pieces, crushed by falling debris, run over by tanks, and even set alight by flamethrowers.

It’s all rather grim, and more than a little depressing to watch, but All Quiet on the Western Front was never, ever intended to be a barrel of laughs, not in 1929, and certainly not in 2022 either. This is a movie that carries an ominous sense of doom and despair everywhere it goes, lifted by a haunting musical score with blaring horns interrupting scenes that seem relatively normal, and bleak cinematography that highlights the extremely rough conditions that these soldiers were fighting in. Berger’s direction relentlessly leaves you on edge, putting the viewer alongside lead characters who you’re never sure until the very end are going to make it through this war alive, even when you feel as though you’ve figured out who’s a walking casket and who isn’t. Luckily, you do feel enough emotions for these people to want to know what happens to them by the end, and the acting all around is so poignant that you may even get a bit of a lump in your throat just from some of their facial reactions alone.

However, the movie at times cannot help but feel a bit bloated, especially with some of the added-on subplots that pad the movie out to a somewhat unnecessary two-and-a-half hour runtime. There is a section of this movie that follows real-life German diplomat Matthias Erzberger (portrayed here by Daniel Brühl) as he meets with French officials to negotiate what would be the war-ending 1918 armistice, and while it’s understandable why the filmmakers would include that strand in their adaptation, it doesn’t add much to the overall message that the scenes on the battlefield were already doing pretty well at conveying. As good of an actor as Brühl is, you could seriously remove all of his scenes and not remove any of the emotional or contextual impact, because as is it’s as though we’ve been saddled with the extended cut that only true dedicated fans of this movie would be extremely interested in seeing. It makes things feel so long (partly because they are), to a point where you think that the climax has just happened, only to audibly groan when you find out there’s another twenty minutes left to go.

While the movie as a whole is powerfully done, as it really drives home its anti-war message like there’s no tomorrow but in a way that still feels oddly gentle, it is paced so slow that your patience might feel tested at several intervals. I do wish that it was trimmed down a bit more, with added emphasis on some of these characters (some of whom you know so little about that you simply identify them by some of their items like their glasses or their moustache), because there really is a top-tier war movie buried somewhere underneath the padding; it’s bleak, gruesome, disturbing, and beautifully made and acted incredibly well, but ironically it is its own desire to do something other than just the original novel again that gives it a bloated feel, no matter how impressed you may be by all of the technical achievements.

There’s enough stuff about it that’s worth recommending to anyone who enjoys watching war movies, particularly the gnarlier and bleaker variety, but don’t expect this version of All Quiet on the Western Front to be the breeziest viewing experience.

SO, TO SUM UP…

All Quiet on the Western Front is a bleak anti-war drama that handles its familiar but still powerful messages in often impressive ways, from its gorgeous cinematography to an ominous musical score, although it is padded out to a lengthy two-and-a-half hour running time by newer elements intended to tie into historical context, but just makes the film feel so much longer to sit through.

All Quiet On The Western Front is now available to stream on Netflix.

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