Round-Up Roulette ’22 – All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The Wheel of Destiny is dwindling but there may be some titles that work their way onto it as I pick up stragglers from 2022. As is, there are still a few titles in rotation and this time we have landed on Netflix’s Oscar hopeful: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front is often breathtaking, and a masterful achievement in technical filmmaking, but is also an incredibly depressing examination of the incalculable toll levied on its young soldiers and how little the leadership ultimately valued their lives. 

Some films have a kind of gravity to them, meaning they exert their weight on you, and this one certainly falls into that category. As much as I was impressed by its cinematic craftsmanship, it’s the magnitude of the film’s message that was hard to shake. 

Director Edward Berger adapted the screenplay with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel (which also served as the basis for Delbert Mann’s 1979 TV movie of the same name) and honed in on the disillusionment caused by the particular brand of brutality during World War I. 

We are first introduced to Paul and his friends who are so eager for adventure that one of them even forges his father’s signature so they can enlist in the German army. Their unrestrained exuberance is stoked and exploited by an officer’s boisterous and patriotic hype speech that, unbeknownst to them, is a stark contrast to the reality of the war effort. Their ideas of adventure and patriotism are quickly eviscerated in a hail of smoke, gunfire, and grueling trench warfare. 

Big elaborate battles make for compelling cinema and most war movies have at least one of those. However, it’s a fine line to walk. One of the things I appreciated most is how much it has haunted me since watching it and that’s because Berger wields the brutality of his film differently than many other war epics. Here, the harsh reality of the war exists not to glorify the combatants or signify the righteousness of a particular cause, but rather to underscore the opposite. The viscous nature of the combat during WWI and, more specifically, the flippant disposal of the country’s young men during a readily apparent losing effort drive home just how pointless it was for the characters we meet. The scope of what it cost them and how it meant almost nothing for the war effort is heartbreaking, even as an American who has been taught over and over in school how Germany was the villain. 

This is a stark contrast to the Paul we meet at the beginning of the story and Kammerer’s eyes say it all

We are treated to a number of excellent performances but chief among them is Paul Bäumer, played by Felix Kammerer. It’s hard to believe this is his only acting credit because he delivers in such a big way. Many other war epics rely on ensembles where you can relate to or at least like some of the characters, but due to style, circumstance, and some of the narrative choices, Kammerer carries a lot of responsibility. The audience is meant to be experiencing the shocking reality of the war from the perspective of someone new to the battlefront so bringing Kammerer for his first on-screen role was an excellent choice that translated well through the camera. The story takes his character through a great ordeal but the filming also took the actor through quite a bit and that symmetry worked incredibly well for Paul.

Albrecht Schuch as Kat

There was a sizable cast, obviously, but the primary supporting roles boiled down to Daniel Brühl and Albrecht Shcuch. Brühl is a fantastic actor and I’m always interested to see what he’s doing but here he plays Matthias Erzberger, a diplomat who is trying to bring about terms that will end the fighting while still giving his country some dignity. That’s easier said than done when negotiating with the French command but it’s he and his colleagues that want to save as many German lives as possible when it’s become clear that victory is no longer in sight. The other key role belongs to Schuch who plays Stanislaus Katczinsky (or Kat). While he may not be a veteran in the traditional sense, he’s the older big brother figure there to guide Paul. Kat has a wife at home and he’s just trying to make it out in one piece but he’s also been fighting long enough that he doesn’t know what normal is any more. Both he and Erzberger represent the figures that are looking out for the soldiers rather than treating them as dispensable. 

While it maybe wasn’t on the scale of a big-budget Hollywood war film, this was still a sizable production and Christian M. Goldbeck did a spectacular job with the production design. It’s wet, it’s muddy, it’s cold, and it’s bloody, and I love Goldbeck’s emphasis on that. Paul spends good portions of the film with his face caked in all of that and it’s a great visual reminder of how the kid we met at the beginning has become transformed by circumstance and the environment. 

Designing it is one part of the struggle but, given the visceral nature of designing such a story, James Friend’s cinematography is astonishing and finds moments of beauty in between the brutality. I appreciated how he was able to take me into the depths of the trenches and then also just sit back and let the landscape speak for itself when needed. His camera work was never heavy-handed and the visual presentation of the film’s best features. It was important to let the quiet moments breathe as a point of contrast to the inevitably of the war element. Volker Bertelmann’s original score was excellent in moments as well and there’s a deep and powerful sound from a harmonium run through a synthesizer. It’s ominous and otherwordly, reminiscent of something I would hear in Arrival or War of the Worlds. I was curious if the score would take on a more contemporary rock-opera feel, but those few simple notes are more than unnerving enough on their own. 

One of, if not, the most powerful elements of this film is its sense of timelessness. This isn’t so much a WWI film as it is a film that is meant to reflect all wars. The central theme here is really the futility of war, the toll on human life, and the maddening cyclical nature of it all. I put this one off for a while because I thought that maybe I didn’t have the bandwidth for another WWI film only a few years after 1917 but I was wrong. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best films of the year and I am glad that I watched it. It should be the favorite to win Best International Feature and could be a dark horse to win Best Picture because it’s good enough to be in the top half of that discussion. 

Recommendation: I wish I had taken the opportunity to see it in theaters while it had its short run but, even if you don’t love war movies, there’s a lot to take away from this one and it feels different.

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