How One of the Best Anti-War Films to Date Misses the Point

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Beau Toepfer

The greatest war novel of all time dismantles the idea of a romantic war.

“What is a soldier without war?” General Friedrich, played by Devid Striesow, tells his aide in German in the new anti-war film “All Quiet on the Western Front”, which takes place in France towards the end of the First World War from 1917-18.  The film is based on the greatest war novel of all time, published in 1928. Written by Erich Maria Remarque, a WWI veteran himself, it takes the ideas of the novel and tries its best to create the same emotion Remarque so eloquently described.  

The film outplays the book in the beauty of the scenes. The cinematography is unparalleled, comparable to films like Life Aquatic or The Lighthouse with their extravagant cinematography. AQOTWF holds its own or even rivals their beauty.  The brutal battle scenes and romantic moments behind the line are intermittently broken by still landscapes capable of being shown in a gallery.  Paired with the moments of chaos where the characters are framed within the landscape and the brilliant costume design and lighting, the viewer cannot take their eyes away from the screen.  Many of the shots featuring the main characters are on par with professional portraiture.  The script is emotional and potent and the soundtrack is phenomenal, often broken up by a jarring and engaging three-note riff.  Even in times of relative peace, the riff will keep the viewer in suspense, unable to look away.  And then the acting, fear, pain, horror, and happiness are indistinguishable from being there with them.  

The acting and lighting contribute to the pure fear which resonates through the screen.”

While films often have a harder time than books drawing viewers into the story, much of the film is muted, lacking in the love, hate, and horror the book so beautifully wove into the story of Paul Bäumer, played by Felix Kammerer.  However, while the acting is incomparable; the book was more in-depth, with more events to characterize the soldiers, and more horrific moments that likely wouldn’t have aired on TV.  

One of Paul’s close friends has his pelvis blown to shreds as they try to save him.  Paul’s best friend Stanislaus Katczinsky, played by Albrecht Schuch and referred to as Kat, was already a veteran when Paul arrived on the front. In the book, Kat introduced Paul to dealing with killing: how to kill wounded horses, rats, and men.  Paul and Kat’s brotherhood is vital to the pain they go through, and in Remarque’s novel, the love between the two was tangible.  The film tried to focus more on the horrors of the war and Paul’s feelings about it, but that took away from the emotion. It spent little time developing relationships between the characters.

On the boy’s first night on the front, they come under a heavy barrage.  Ludwig Behm, played by Adrian Grünewald, is the obvious personification of innocence.  While dirt falls through the slats of the dugout and it begins to collapse, Ludwig cries through his improvised glasses.  The acting and lighting contribute to the pure fear which resonates through the screen.  Paul finds Ludwig the next morning, his leg blown off and his head covered in blood and caked mud.  It is in moments like these or when Albert Kropp, Paul’s close friend played by Aaron Hilmer, is mercilessly burnt by French flamethrowers while surrendering that the film succeeds in delivering the pure emotion of the novel. But the book never strayed from Paul, and it never had to.  The futility and horror of it all are delivered beautifully, portrayed through Paul’s eyes.  There didn’t have to be a reason for the war to be a pointless slaughter; it just is.  The film introduces two subplots, one of the characteristically evil General Friedrich and his aide, and the other of the German negotiator Matthias Erzberger, played by Daniel Brühl.

“My orders are war. And all the while that is the case, I shall fight for every meter,” Friedrich tells his aide before ordering another meaningless slaughter.

These two stories are both disasters to the theme of the film, and destroy what the book aimed to do.  The film initially aimed to show the horror and futility of war, but missed the pointlessness in the end.  The novel and film are from a German perspective. The book challenged the notion of war, instead, it argued that there are no evil people, only evil actions.  Paul is brutal, bludgeoning his foe with his helmet or hacking them with his spade, but he is not evil.  He is still a good human.  General Friedrich, however, is evil.  He is the archetypal, warmongering general who wants to see the massacre continue.  When the ceasefire is signed, he still orders another attack, adding more death and violence, even executing his own men who refuse to fight.  The novel made the point that war is evil, but not the people who fight it. Remarque’s point to what it means to be a soldier and how it impacts your identity are forgotten by Friedrich. However, compared to the tragedy of Erzberger’s negotiations, Friedrich is a slight oversight.

But the book never strayed from Paul, and it never had to.  The futility and horror of it all are delivered beautifully, portrayed through Paul’s eyes.  There didn’t have to be a reason for the war to be a pointless slaughter; it just is. ”

Matthias Erzberger’s character is based on a real person, unlike the rest of the characters.  He was the lead delegate of the negotiations, paving the way for an armistice to be signed.  Much of the movie is set in the last few weeks of the war, unlike the book which slowly worked its way through the final two years.  

Spoiler alert!!!!! Everyone dies.  Paul, Kat, and Kropp all end up being just another body to be thrown in a pit.  In the book, Paul dies in October, a full month before the armistice, and a couple of weeks after he fails to save Kat after he was wounded.  Paul’s death is warranted three paragraphs, there is no closure, he is unceremoniously hit by a sniper round in the head.  The novel ends on the same page.  In the film, Kat, Tjaden, and Paul died during the last 24 hours of the war.  Kropp dies only a few days prior.  Paul is mortally wounded and dies after hostilities are ended.  The idea is that their deaths are totally futile because the war was almost over and the negotiations almost concluded, they almost made it out. As if there ever was a purpose behind their senseless massacre.  Remarque’s novel never needed the war to end to prove the futility of the slaughter of these young soldiers.  If you glean anything from the novel, you’ll recognize how horrible and futile war is, there is no point to the horror and death.  The film falls leagues short of making this point.  

While the idea of anti-war is missed by the film, the skeletal structure of AQOTWF is the story of young men who had to do unspeakable things and experience unspeakable trauma during the war.  The film is dead-on in visualizing the horror of the war.  It also focuses heavily on the effects of their trauma, something Remarque was able to do well having experienced the war himself.  Kat is scared to return home; he doesn’t know how to merge back to normal life.  The film recognizes problems modern veterans deal with on a daily basis and puts them into the lives of WWI soldiers.  The novel’s emotions and theme were unparalleled, but the film exemplifies the horrors of the First World War. The hell of war remains in Paul’s face when he marches to the last charge.  He is a changed man.

“The stench will remain on us forever,” Paul Bäumer says to Kat on their last morning together.