Released: 28th October 2022
Seen: 26th January 2023
With Oscar nominations announced, the time has come to go back and look over films that were nominated that I somehow missed over the last year so that I’m able to make a semi-justifiable post guessing what the winners will be in a month’s time. To start this little trip through the nominees I’m going to talk about the second most nominated film this year, All Quiet On The Western Front which is the third adaptation of the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. This time the film was actually made in Germany, the country that the novel is set in, and it appears that personal connection has allowed the filmmakers to truly explore the darkness of the material.
All Quiet On The Western Front is almost the perfect anti-war film, a film that sets up a feeling of hope and expectation for our main cast to become heroes only to take those hopes and bash them on the head with the brutal reality that war is and always will be absolute hell. The entire story focuses on the central character of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) who is only 17 and has to lie his way into the army which he’s more than willing to do in order to defend his country and come back a hero. Once All Quiet on the Western Front moves into the trenches though, any notion that these men are going to come back as heroes is torn violently from the audience’s mind and replaced with the question of whether they’ll come back home at all.
All Quiet On The Western Front almost pointedly denies any and all war imagery the potential of being viewed positively, everything about what the young men at the core of this film go through is just dark and depressing with next to no actual value. They aren’t about to go on some grand adventure or save a battalion of men from a big mistake or even get a small victory that could turn the tide of the war. These men will barely move their line forward a few hundred feet and at best they’ll get a lifetime of trauma and at worst they’ll die in brutally violent ways and All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t even try to sugarcoat that. It’s blunt, it’s direct, it might as well just have a big neon sign that says “Everything about this war sucks and these men are fucked” because that’s the point and it conveys that well.
Every element of All Quiet on the Western Front just adds to the devastating feeling that emanates from it, the glorious cinematography that at times can turn this war film into a horror film where giant metal monsters emerge from the mist ready to blast through a battalion of men, or it’ll just linger on an entire field of corpses whose faces we half remember and just let the sheer number of casualties sink in. Every chance it can get, All Quiet on the Western Front makes the horrific truth of war as visceral as possible. If All Quiet on the Western Front could literally have the TV splatter blood on the audience’s faces it would probably do that too (hell, there’s at least one moment when the blood splatters the camera lens so why not splatter the audience?).
Mixed in among the shocking horrors of war is this version of All Quiet on the Western Front’s secret weapon, the addition of negotiations to end the war. Not found in the original book, this version of the story adds in the German delegation (led by Daniel Brühl as Matthias Erzberger) going to negotiate a ceasefire and that addition is what makes everything even bleaker, knowing that there is a plan to end this war being worked out the entire time and yet still all these young men die needlessly. It gives the film a surprising gut punch that really makes it clear why this is the foreign film that’s managed to basically capture the Academy’s voting body.
On top of the visual horrors, the auditory horror goes down to the score. It’s low, sometimes barely audible under the sounds of explosions and screams but it’s there and its droning pulse keeps the viewer holding on for dear life. There’s a specific three-note motif that’s so simple but so powerful that hearing it will have the hairs on your arm standing at attention in fear of just what is about to come over the horizon to add to the endless trauma that is bestowed on the men in battle. Everything is almost pointedly as quiet as could be, you could hear a flea fart for a decent chunk of All Quiet on the Western Front but that will lull you into a false sense of security before the next horror happens and all you can hear are people screaming for their lives.
In case it hasn’t been made clear yet, All Quiet On The Western Front is dark, confronting, brutal, and absolutely amazing. It has no desire to hold back even a little, choosing instead to just shake the audience awake with a harsh reminder of the reality of war. There is no romance here, no grand adventure to be had. Boys will not grow into men and come home heroes, they will die forgotten in a muddy trench and if they’re obscenely lucky they’ll get a mass burial somewhere if there are enough parts left to be put in a box. It’s harsh and makes no qualms about its harshness, and god damn is it powerful filmmaking. It’s no wonder this film is one of the most nominated of the year because you can’t forget the reality that it’s showing you as easily as you might want to.
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