Thursday, February 23, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

We're back with another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!  Plugging away at this year's Best Picture nominees (I'm halfway through them), I sat down and endured Edward Berger's German-language remake of the 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front...

Time to update my old Top Ten Things article ranking the great war films, as there's a new candidate to add to the list.  Berger's remake, somewhat loosely based on the original film and novel, joins films like Saving Private Ryan and Come and See in taking a brutally honest (and I do mean BRUTAL) look at the experience, and in this case futility, of being on the battlefield.  This film begins by dropping us right in the middle of a gory World War I trench skirmish, as a soldier empties his rifle and proceeds to charge at his enemy using only his shovel.  Cut ahead a few months, and that now-dead soldier's uniform is being repurposed along with thousands of others, for a new batch of German teenage recruits duped by those in power into believing that enlisting and shipping off to the front will make them patriotic heroes.  

We follow a group of four young friends, led by Paul Baumer (newcomer Felix Kammerer in a prodigiously stunning performance) who forges his parental consent papers in order to join, and they quickly learn all the heroism and romance they were fed about the war was a lie.  The film immerses us in the harrowing hellscape that was trench warfare, as men are picked off by the dozens during muddy raids, losing limbs and lives in the fruitless pursuit of a tiny swath of terrain.  One of the film's most gut-wrenching scenes involves a Paul killing a French soldier with a knife and then having to listen to him gasp, gargle and flail as he clings to life; this sequence is upsetting on the same level as the knife fight in SPR.
Running parallel to this inhumane deathsport are scenes created specifically for the film, involving big-picture negotiations for a ceasefire.  The German High Command knows their goose is cooked and that they're just wasting men every day the war continues, while the French Commanders know they have their enemies over a barrel and give them 72 hours to accept terms of surrender.  

As these privileged leaders discuss the fate of their respective nations from luxurious train cars and palatial offices, the men on the ground are in such dire circumstances they're forced to steal food from local farmers to survive.  The small group of friends discuss the futility of their situation and whether or not they'll be able to go back to a normal life once the war is over; Paul is a scholarly young man but his older friend Kat is an illiterate cobbler who demands Paul do something with his education.

Like its source material, this film isn't at all shy about hammering home its salient points.  Not only is war Hell on Earth, but the men in power use their armies as mere chess pawns in pursuit of placating their own egos, case in point the sociopathic German General Friedrichs, who upon learning of the impending armistice orders his forces to attack the French front lines one final time, needlessly sacrificing hundreds more men.  That millions died in such a pointless war is unconscionable (ending titles reveal that the Western Front was essentially a stalemate for the war's duration as the two sides fought literally years over the same few hundred yards of land).

Cinematographer James Friend's camera catches all the grimy, mud-caked, blood-soaked action in painful detail, yet finds cinematic beauty in the unrelenting carnage.  The color palette is richer that of Saving Private Ryan, capturing the grays and browns of the trench battles but also the lush greens of the French countryside and warm firelit oranges during nighttime moments.  Photographically there are nods to Spielberg of course, but also Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick and Elem Klimov (Come and See), the latter director's film is paid homage numerous times in horrified closeups of Paul's mud-crusted face.

I've read numerous reviews and comments complaining that this version of the film strays too far from the source material, or that it's too eager to show examples of good and evil people on both sides, and I find those criticisms hollow.  Why does it matter that the filmmakers changed some events from the novel, or added original scenes?  The point is that thousands of young men were conditioned by the German authorities into believing they were on the side of righteousness and willingly marched off to an unnecessary early death, just as thousands of American troops were fed the same line fifty years later and did the same.  Regardless what side the central characters fought for, they were ordinary boys who joined a phony cause without informed consent, a theme that still resonates a hundred years after the novel's publication.  

All Quiet is one of those pitilessly outspoken historical films that, while appallingly unpleasant, should be required viewing in US and World History classes to show students what actually happened and what those involved had to endure.  Alongside the original pre-Code film, this is a traumatic experience, but one viewed through a painterly lens, conveying the violence in graphic detail without glorifying it, and featuring compellingly naturalistic performances by a largely unknown ensemble cast.  This is my new pick for the Best Pic statuette.

I give this film **** out of ****.  

Thanks for reading - subscribe to our mailing list, and follow us on Twitter, MeWe, Facebook and YouTube!

No comments:

Post a Comment