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Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

March 5, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Director Edward Berger’s Oscar-nominated All Quiet on the Western Front is a new adaptation of German novelist Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I classic, which was most famously turned into an Oscar-winning 1930 film.

Whether you categorize it as a remake of that previous Best Picture winner or merely a new take on the source material (it’s technically both), Berger’s film stands tall in its own right as a harrowing portrait of war and the young men that it swallows up.

The film is carried by young actor Felix Kammerer’s haunting performance as a young German soldier eager to join the war effort, before realizing the true horrors of what awaits him on the battlefield, and it already stands as one of the best depictions of WWI ever put on screen.

The story is set behind German lines near the end of World War I, and Kammerer stars in the film as Paul Bäumer, who enlists in the German army with his friends Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer) and Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus). The film makes a point of showing how, despite them being excited to fight for their country, they are still very much just teenagers who have been raised on patriotic propaganda.

On the battlefield, Paul is befriended by Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), an older soldier who becomes like a mentor to him. Meanwhile, we also follow a German official, Matthia Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl), who is trying to negotiate an armistice deal between the German High Command and Allied forces.

We follow Paul over the course of the film, his increasingly tortured visage becoming our guide through the hellish landscape of the battlefields and trenches. This is one of the most harrowing portraits of war since the famous opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, showing the large scale destruction, as well as the toll that it takes on the individual soldiers. The film simply doesn’t hold back in its absolute commitment to showing the grittiness of the battlefield, with an intensity that never really wavers throughout its gripping 148 running time.

The result is a piece of brutal, impressively bleak filmmaking from German director Berger, that serves as a stunning technical achievement on every level. The production design puts us right in the muddy trenches with the soldiers, as cinematographer James Friend’s impeccable camerawork captures the expanses of the battlefield in sweeping crane shots, while still retaining an intimacy in how it captures the terrified, mournful faces of individual soldiers. The impressive attention to detail goes down to the grimy makeup of the soldiers’ mud-caked faces and weathered costumes.

The experience is enhanced by Volker Bertelmann’s pounding musical score. But Berger balances the bombast with quieter character moments, such as a remarkably poignant exchange that happens when Paul helps Kat, a cobbler by trade who wants to get back to his quiet family life, read a letter from his wife back home. The scene is all the more remarkable for the way that it is framed, with the men both facing forward, seated over a shared latrine. The filmmaker is also attuned to powerful little details, such as showing the name tag on a uniform, that reveal their importance later on.

In its heartbreaking final sequence, All Quiet on the Western Front becomes a powerful statement on the frustrating futility of war, as the battle reaches its arbitrary endpoint, and these young soldiers caught in the middle are the ones asked to pay the ultimate price. This is a devastating war epic staged as anti-war drama.

All Quiet on the Western Front is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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