There wasn’t much point in filming another version of Eric Maria Remaraque’s classic anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
There are other films of it out there, each worthwhile in its own way. And we’ve had “1917,” “The War Below,” “War Horse” and “Journey’s End” in the last few years, taking us deeper and deeper into the horrors of the Western Front meatgrinder of the trenches of France.
So director and co-writer Edward Berger and his German team didn’t “remake” “All Quiet.” They added points of view to the narrowly-focused grunts-eye-view novel.
We see the troubling Armistice negotiations and the first flashes of the original fascist “Big Lie,” that the German army was “stabbed in the back” by “liberal” politicians, ignoring the fact that the army had a hand in starting the war and was wholly responsible for losing it.
A sputtering Prussian general (Devid Streisow) fumes that “The Social Democrats will be the end of mankind!”
The ending is changed just enough to preserve its message of the futility and waste of this most futile and wasteful war, with its staggering slaughter and inhumanity, while soberly fixing on the demagogues who started it and could not wait to foment the dissent that would lead to the next one.
But if you remember the story or earlier films, you will recognize what’s happening and who it is happening to, and lose yourself in another filmed immersion in life and death in the trenches, in “no man’s land” — death by bullet or bayonet, gas or gangrene.
Felix Kammerer is Paul Bäumer, the school boy who joins up with his entire class, which enlists en masse in 1917. Their head master (Michael Wittenborn) exhorts them, “the iron youth of Germany,” to go and make quick work of the French and the British, and the just-declared-war Americans.
Paul and his comrades muster in, endure their first “tests” from their lieutenant, and struggled for 18 months of thin rations and low-survival rates as “dead men walking,” which Paul jokes that they are as they exchange their school uniforms for the army’s.
But Berger — who made “Jack” and has worked in German television — opens his film with a bravura, mostly dialogue-free combat sequence, watching a soldier cope with the shock of shelling, the terror of going “over the top,” the panic of not being able to get his bolt-action G98 rifle to fire and eventually his death.
We see the body picked up, stripped and the uniform washed, patched and recycled. That’s what Paul is putting on, a dead man’s clothes. He’s just a cog in the German war machine, fresh meat for the grinder.
“Truth is the first casualty of war” is underscored, right from the start. These boys are being sent into battle to feed the machine, which despite successes against Russia, has failed to break through in the West. They aren’t warned that three years into this war, Germany is not much closer to winning.
And the fact that Germany is forced to re-use the uniforms of the dead doesn’t suggest “victory” is anywhere in sight.
The novel, like this version of it on screen, tracks the death of innocence — naively stumbling into first combat, seeing comrades fall, one by one, meeting the grizzled veteran/bunker philosopher Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch). A raid on a French farm here, a flirtation with a farm girl there, all tucked into months of charges or fending off enemy charges, struggling to stay alive as their idealism dies one day at a time.
Berger and cinematographer James Friend — with a little digital help here and there — paint the panorama of war on a wide canvas, a portrait in mud, blood and rotting shades of grey. The fights are close-up, intimate, filmed tight to make them grimly personal.
The soundtrack is silence interrupted by cacophonous combat, grunts and panting and yelps and the whizz of bullets, the rattle of machine guns and blasts from artillery and grenades. Composer Volker Bertelmann brilliantly augments this with a metallic “Inception” inspired score of bass rumbles and brass blasts and the startling crack of drumsticks on a drum’s rim or solitary, abrupt pops on the head of the snare drum.
Daniel Brühl, playing a civilian official negotiating the coming armistice, stands out in the cast by being the most familiar face to international audiences (“”Rush,” “Captain America: Civil War”). The players are good, but Berger seems far more committed to the vast mural he’s painting than to the individual journeys. There was more pathos in the most famous Hollywood version of this story, even in the 1979 TV movie, than anyone here is able to summon up.
I found “1917” more visceral and engaging, “War Horse” more moving. At this point, the novelty of this nightmare has worn off, its ability to shock modern audiences by recreating the cold, gory realities of “The Great War” is gone.
But all involved are to be commended for taking a shot at modernizing a classic novel and rendering it into another lesson that history does repeat itself, that as the philosopher said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Rating: R, graphic violence, profanity, smoking
Cast: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Moritz Klaus, Aaron Hilmer, Adrian Grünewald, Devid Streisow and Daniel Brühl
Credits: Directed by Edward Berger, scripted by Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, based on the novel by Eric Maria Remarque. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:38