Paul Bäumer, the tender-faced boy soldier played by stage actor Felix Kammerer in Edward Berger’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front—Erich Maria Remarque’s nearly 100-year-old German novel about the horror and futility of World War I—does not seem long for this world.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
The first commander he encounters—not that any of his combat experiences are marked by the neatly organized hierarchy we have come to associate with both the military and war movies—gives him about a day. (The prediction nearly comes true after Bäumer is buried under a bunker collapsed by a barrage of French artillery.) His mother (a character that, unlike in Remarque’s novel or past film adaptations, does not physically appear) writes to her son that she expects him to make it two weeks, tops.
I won’t share whether either accurately predicts the fate of Bäumer, not that it would be much of a spoiler. His ultimate outcome is well-known to anyone who managed to make it through the novel in high school, as well as cineastes and butterfly-lovers familiar with Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-winning 1930 masterpiece, or those who have vague recollections of seeing John Boy from The Waltons play Paul opposite Ernest Borgnine in a ‘70s TV movie. (Berger’s film, which is playing in select theaters and arrives on Netflix (NFLX) Oct 28, is the first adaptation in the novel’s native language.)
Considering the true-to-life experiences this fictional character endured—between 1914 and 1918, over 17 million soldiers perished in the trench warfare stalemate along the Western front—whether Paul lives or dies is secondary. What matters most is that Paul is still suffering a century later—we all are.
Remarque’s chronicle of the unassailable pointlessness of the war to end all wars was itself meant to end all wars. Yet eight months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the doomed exploits Paul and his classmates—joyfully signing up to be heroes for the fatherland with all the giddy enthusiasm of teenagers picking up the latest Call of Duty—are again laden with both urgency and the entrenched sadness that comes from ignoring history.
The speed and permanency with which their ardor is transformed into abject terror once they are subjected to the rain- and blood-drenched reality of the trenches may be expected, but it is nevertheless shocking. The ability of Kammerer and his young castmates to convey the bone-deep dread of artillery bombardments and tanks rolling overhead is matched only by Berger’s complete command of the machinery of war and propulsion of narrative.
Unlike other recent World War I films—most notably Sam Mendes’ 1917—Berger keeps the focus on the plight of the characters, not the boldness of the filmmaking. Moments of quiet humanity—Paul’s classmate Kropp’s (Aaron Hilmer) infatuation with a girl on a French theater poster, the veteran Kat’s (Albrecht Schuch) sliding of a beetle into an empty matchbox for safekeeping—resonate as profoundly as the earsplitting bombasts and limb-severing wounds.
For a film focused on getting the technical realities of war correct, it is Berger’s feel for and patience with the moments that these horrors disrupt—foxes sleeping in their den only to poke a head up at a distant blast, two starving soldiers savoring the taste of a fresh raw goose egg—that make this portrayal so singular.
Berger also finds room for the bureaucrats who treat young men as disposable widgets in a factory of death—Devid Striesow is horrifying as a general who refuses to accept that the war is all but over—as well as those who recognize the pointlessness of their sacrifice far too late. Inglourious Basterds and MCU vet Daniel Brühl adds another layer of hopelessness as Matthias Erzberger, the German Secretary of State negotiating the end of the war aboard a lushly-appointed train, where the velvet seats provide a counter texture to the mud-caked faces of the trench-bound soldiers. Erzberger is forced to accept punitive terms of surrender that will help plant the seeds for the rise of the Third Reich and the start of World War II.
Unlike previous versions, Paul and his comrades never stray far from the battlefield once they enter it. So, while both Remarque’s novel and the war itself introduced us to PTSD (“shell shock” as it was known then), the film can only show it in the moment, with the convulsions of disgust and wretches of fear of unremarkable men and boys experiencing and committing the unfathomable. Instead, it is us who must carry it forward, shaken by a horrific and ever-continuing reality that no amount of denial is able to contain.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.