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Reviewed by:
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Edward Berger
  • Dennis Matt Stevenson
All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)
Directed by Edward Berger
Distributed by Netflix
148 minutes

Recent epic war dramas have undergone a significant shift from the films of the early millennium. In the 2000s and early 2010s, Americans flocked to such films as We Were Soldiers (2002), Tears of the Sun (2003), 300 (2006), Fury (2014), and American Sniper (2014) all of which expressed war as brutal, but necessary and righteous. Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) is in a line of films which critique this honorable-service narrative. Its heavy anti-war messaging emphasizes conflicts between nations as pointless and the sacrifices made by soldiers as a vain pursuit rather than a noble sacrifice. The fact that this film received such critical acclaim, being nominated for nine Academy Awards of which it won four, signals a shift in our current political atmosphere reflective of the post-War on Terror era. The third cinematic iteration of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel (the previous being 1930 and 1979) is as telling in its production 104 years after the events depicted as it is its demonstration of World War I nihilism.

This point is made poignant as the 2022 version is the first to be filmed in German, by a German director, and featuring a predominantly German and Austrian cast, funded by the American streaming service Netflix. The story follows Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer), an underage recruit who forges his documents to join the German military in 1917, alongside his three classmates and friends: Albert, Franz, and Ludwig (played by Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, and Adrian Grunewald, respectively). Full of patriotic zeal the young men’s idealism is shattered on their first day at the front lines by the realities of trench warfare. Taken under the wing of veteran Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), Baumer manages to survive the first day of combat despite the tremendous loss of life all around him, including his friend Ludwig. For the next 18 months, 4 days, and 6 hours, Baumer witnesses and perpetrates the atrocities of the Western Front. Baumer’s friends, along with countless other soldiers, are killed by artillery, machine guns, flame throwers, tanks, snipers, and gas—all while living on starvation rations in rat-infested mud-filled trenches. There is a sense of desperation among the soldiers that the German lines might collapse at any moment in the face of relentless pressure from French attacks. What they do not realize is that the French are equally desperate in their struggle to hold the line. In the final push to claim a victory, the German army nearly breaks through before a final cease-fire is declared. In this last push, Baumer is bayonetted in the back, ending his life mere seconds before the Armistice effectively ends the war on the Western Front.

It is on this point that the true adversary of these soldiers becomes apparent: their own generals. While the rank and file suffer at every turn, the generals on both sides eat well, drink heavily, and travel in the safety of their luxury train cars. General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) of the German high command emerges as the film’s antagonist. He has made winning military victory a personal matter and is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives (both German and French) to defend his pride. Likewise, the French General Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montalembert) is stubborn, unforgiving, and unmoved by the suffering of soldiers in his pursuit of an absolute victory for the Allies. Politician Matthias Erzberger’s (David Bruhl) pleas for an end to hostilities in the name of humanity falls on deaf ears until he is willing to agree to all French terms for unconditional surrender. Meanwhile, every moment of delay means further pointless charges and countercharges on the front lines resulting in thousands of deaths. When peace is at last negotiated, Friedrichs feels betrayed, declaring, “The social democrats will be the end of mankind.” Following the negotiations and with nothing more to be gained from a further loss of life, General Friedrichs orders one last attempt to...