Nearly a century ago, All Quiet on the Western Front made its cinematic debut. The 1930 feature from Lewis Milestone was so powerful Nazis in Germany disrupted screenings so its messages could not permeate their culture. Still considered an all-time classic, there are many reasons to be skeptical of Netflix‘s remake. However, director Edward Berger creates one of the most powerful films of 2022. An outright rejection of nationalism and violence, All Quiet on the Western Front reminds us of the poignancy of its anti-war message.
Set during World War I, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) enlists to serve his country. Germany requires reinforcements for the frontlines, and word of the devastation has not reached the small towns throughout the country. Paul and his friends are shocked to find the front horrifying gore and cold of the trenches. Over the next three years, Paul finds himself struggling to survive. Meanwhile, politicians debate how and when to end the war.
Berger’s ambition and accomplishments become instantly apparent. After an intro that can only be described as pure horror, he engages war’s mechanical, cold nature. Gorgeous cinematography transports us from scenic woods to a battlefield littered with bodies. This would be upsetting enough if not immediately followed by a montage depicting the gears of war in stark honesty. The chilling score by Volker Bertelmann underscores that death and tension exist along every step.
However, the horrifying beginning leaves your mind as you dive deeper into the horrors of war. We plunge ten feet deeper into the muck just when you believe you’ve found rock bottom. The visceral nature of All Quiet on the Western Front makes the smell of dirt and mud palpable. This is not just a picture of war as a hellscape. This is a Dante-style descent into the depths of humanity’s worst impulses. However, it can only show us at our worst by occasionally providing a glimpse at humans at our very best.
Perhaps no scene speaks more to the duality of man than a sequence in a bunker between Paul and an unnamed soldier. The heartbreaking scene takes the audience through the full range of the emotional scale, from worry and celebration straight into pure sadness. As Paul survives the encounter with a soldier attempting to kill him, the visual of the man dying sends Paul into existential panic. Rather than let this man die alone, Paul attempts to save his enemy from mere seconds ago. Kammerer’s performance of fear and desperation encapsulates the entirety of All Quiet on the Western Front better than anyone could expect. The tragedy of the scene unlocks the entire film.
Instantly, All Quiet on the Western Front earns its place in the canon of war films. The harrowing sequences test the stress of the viewer. Yet Berger creates a beautiful visual portrait of a region destroyed by war. He assembles an impeccable ensemble and tells stories of soldiers who matter. He never pulls a punch and instead forces us to see the darkest sides of the human experience. Few films can meld the mechanical grind of war and maintain emotional stakes with every subsequent death. Berger’s near masterpiece will stick with us for years to come. All Quiet on The Western Front is an absolute triumph of filmmaking.