ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONTWhen I was a kid, maybe 13-years-old, my father turned on a movie and said I should watch it. I protested because I was 13 and didn’t really care about most movies. Especially movies for grown-ups. I was not the movie nerd I am today. My dad told me to watch GUNS OF NAVARONE with him and to trust him, I would like it. He was not wrong. I did like it. I still do, maybe more than I did when I was 13. Gregory Peck, Anthony Quayle, Anthony Quinn, David Niven. Just a great “men on a mission” movie. It also made me love World War II movies. From The Sands of Iwo Jima to The Longest Day, from Tora! Tora! Tora! to 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. I was all in on the genre. Then we started getting the “war, what is it good for” movies. Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the 4th of July, Saving Private Ryan. These are the “war really is hell” movies. But there is an ultimate anti-war movie and it’s not about WWII or Korea or Vietnam.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is based on a novel written by Erich Maria Remarque about his experience in the German army during World War I. There is nothing romantic about it. It is a brutal depiction about the horrors of war. The book was made into an Academy Award winning film in 1930, one year after the book was released. Then it was made into a TV mini-series in the 1970’s. Those were adapted by Americans. The new adaptation released by Netflix is written and directed by a German, Edward Berger. His nationality had to have some influence on this version. I think I saw some of the TV mini-series and I never saw the original adaptation, but neither could be any better than this film.

The film focuses on Paul, a young man conscripted into the German army near the end of the war. He and three friends are deployed to France… the western front. They think they are going to win the war and return home heroes. Their optimism is quickly turned when they see the carnage and brutality at the front. Gas, hand to hand trench warfare, collecting the dog tags of dead German soldiers. Nope, nothing romantic here. The story follows Paul as he becomes a more hard-bitten soldier. The only thing that really matters is fighting and surviving. He finds a sort of mentor in Kat, a more experienced soldier. They are the pair we follow throughout the movie. They are our heroes if this film has any. There is B-Plot about the negotiations toward signing the armistice and ending the fighting. It’s largely an invention by Berger and the only thing that really makes you care about it is a wonderful performance by Daniel Brühl as the lead negotiator. It serves to remind us that the peace only stoked the fire for Hitler’s rise to power and the next World War.

The cinematography by James Friend is breathtaking. The way he frames the fighting and shows its unsparing brutality really gets the point across. Then the vistas of the battlefields, and the French countryside give us all a pleasant break from the brutality, just as it must have the soldiers. The Oscar nominated score by Volker Bertelmann is propulsive and helps drive the action.

But the real amazing work here is by Berger. He draws us in from the first scene. It shows a soldier attacking the French, then being killed in action. His uniform is repurposed for the next soldier, who happens to be Paul. The way Berger shows us the brutality, then the reality of what happens after soldiers die is one of the best sequences of a war movie I’ve ever seen. Add in Bertelmann’s score and it’s just a masterful piece of filmmaking.

This film is not for the faint of heart. Berger shows us the carnage in all its grotesque horror. But it’s necessary to get the point across. War isn’t fun, it’s not glamorous. It’s not John Wayne running up Mount Suribachi. It’s not Gregory Peck and David Niven triumphantly destroying those guns on Navarone. It is young men fighting and dying for very little purpose. Berger ends the film with title cards one of which explains that after years of war, neither the Germans nor the French gained much if any ground on the Western Front. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT may have surprised people with an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, but it is an honor that is richly deserved.

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