Netflix film “All Quiet on the Western Front”, which was recently selected as Germany’s submission for Best International Film Oscar, is relentlessly grim, muddy, and intense throughout its 147-minute running time. I surely understand that this is not supposed to be entertaining from the beginning as your typical anti-war film, but the movie feels not only grueling and but also rather hollow in my inconsequential opinion. As a matter of fact, I was often bored and frustrated during my viewing instead of becoming engaged a lot in its story and characters, and I felt empty and disappointed when the ending came at last with lackadaisical whimper.
The story, which is based on the 1929 novel of the same name by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, mainly revolves around a lad named Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), who eagerly joins the German Army along with several friends of his in 1917 at the beginning of the story. Their country is being in the middle of the World War I, but Paul and many other lads are motivated a lot as hoping for glory and honor, and we soon see them being sent to the western front not long after their enlistment.
Of course, it does not take much time for them to confront the hellish reality of the war, and the movie already prepared us for that via its prologue sequence, which shows where the “new” uniforms for Paul and other young soldiers come from. The situation has been quite bad in and around the western front, and the movie gives us a series of strikingly grim moments as these lads struggle to adjust themselves to this extremely harsh and dangerous condition. While they frequently face the immediate possibility of death everyday, their hope for glory and honor is quickly gone, and there are only despair and disillusionment for them with more deaths around them.
At least, things are not always bad for Paul mainly thanks to Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), a seasoned senior soldier who becomes a sort of father figure for Paul. During Paul’s first several days on the western front, Kat kindly takes Paul under his wings, and Paul willingly assists Kat when they attempt to steal a goose from a nearby French farm at one point. They and several other soldiers later enjoyed the cooked goose in private, and that is one of few cheerful moments in the film.
However, the horror of the war keeps coming to them and many other soldiers as usual. There is a chilling scene where Paul and his comrades come across a horrific scene of mass death caused by poison gas, and this and other brooding moments in the film are often accentuated by the calm but bleak landscape shots provided by cinematographer James Friend. Whenever they are demanded to fight against their enemies, Paul and his comrades always have to throw themselves into sheer peril, and the movie naturally goes all the way for showing us all the bangs and guts around them.
The technical achievement of the movie is surely as impressive as many other recent war movies such as “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016), but it was somehow difficult for me to care about what was happening on the screen. As occupied with so much with striking us as hard as possible, the movie seems to forget developing its story and characters enough to engage us, and I must point out that Paul and several other young soldiers are often indistinguishable from each other – especially when they are on battlefield. In addition, they are more or less than bland archetypes, and Paul is also not a particularly interesting hero to observe except functioning as a blank canvass onto which the horror of war is projected.
The screenplay by director Edward Berger and his co-writers Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson also spends a little too much time on the subplot involved with German politicians and generals including Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl, who also served as one of the co-producers of the film), a real-life politician who participated in the truce negotiation with the Allied. Their scenes feel curiously flat and perfunctory as politician and generals solemnly interact with each other, and the movie does not have much to tell us besides how politicians and generals are usually distant and detached from soldiers struggling to fight and survive out there.
Some of more engaging moments in the film come from Kat, who is relatively more colorful than Paul and several other main characters in the film. I especially enjoyed his warm and humorous moment involved with a letter from his dear wife, and it is a shame that the movie does not focus more on the developing comradeship between him and Paul along the story. Not so surprisingly, Albrecht Schuch often steals the show from Felix Kammerer and several other main cast members in the film, and he certainly brings some life and spirit into not only his role but also the movie.
On the whole, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is admirable to some degree for putting lots of efforts on reminding us that war is indeed hell, but I am still hesitating to recommend it. While I appreciate its gritty mood and muddy details, I remain distant to its overall result due to its glaring lack of substance, and that takes me back to the 1930 American movie version, which incidentally won the two Oscars for Best Picture and Director at that time. Yes, that film is relatively tame these days, but it was a fairly good film at least as far as I remember, and now I am considering whether I should revisit it just for comparison.
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