Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front starts with a moment of juxtaposition. We are shown the beautiful winter forest in France, and then a family of foxes sleeping, nestled in their foxhole. A foxhole as nature intended. Then we are shown a gruesome, overhead shot of a nearby battlefield. The bodies of young men in German and French uniforms are strewn about in the cold mud. If only they had stayed in their foxholes. Or warm in their homes.
Then we are shown the ever moving machine that is war. Soldiers emerge from the trenches only to die within a few minutes. The dead are collected into piles and transported. They are stripped of their uniforms and shoes. Coffins are stacked. Blood is washed out of uniforms, the bullet holes sewn shut. Ready for the next round of soldiers to wear, fight and die in.
Adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel, the film follows four young German men as they leave school, eager to join the war. Their teacher fills them with hope, telling them that they are the future of Germany, that they will be marching on Paris within weeks and many wonderful things await when they come home victorious.
The boys’ arrival at the front is a rude awakening. Their transport is given up so medics can help the dozens of dying men left in the mud. One of their first orders in the trench is to bail out the filthy, knee high water. One boy comments “Somehow this isn’t how I imagined it.” By the end of the night the boys will have experienced their first bombing and seen absolutely horrific and gruesome deaths.
Watching this version of All Quiet on the Western front is not for the faint of heart. The realistic violence and gore rival nearly every other war movie I’ve ever seen. I can watch grizzly horror movies and not bat an eye, but some of the violence and reactions from other soldiers got under my skin and made me want to turn away. I share this with you not just as a warning for the squeamish, but a testament to how effective this film is. It is an unflinching look at the horrors of war and makes us more sympathetic to these poor soldiers dying in the mud and fills us with hatred for the leaders who keep this war going in comfort from afar.
All Quiet on the Western Front is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The other nominations are best sound, adapted screenplay, cinematography, production design, makeup and hairstyling, visual effects, and original score. It’s easy to see that with this film’s various technical achievements make it an intense and immersive film to experience.. All Quiet on the Western Front is also nominated for Best International Feature Film, representing Germany.
This film is a stirring, dramatic and gruesome look at World War I. And just as the author originally intended, it still sends a deep anti-war message. It’s never worth it. There is no glory in war. There is no glory in death. To some, soldiers were simply a cog in the machine, easily replaced when they were spent. But the human within the soldier, they are worth remembering. We remember their sacrifice and tell their stories for generations to come.
“My son killed in the war. He doesn’t feel any honor.”