ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT Innocence, Youth, and Friendship Crushed by the Brutality of World War I

Edward Berger’s Oscar nominated film adaption (2022) of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Im Westen Nichts Neues (1929), tell us about the downfall of the German “iron youth” deluded into war by twisted dreams of victory. With a storytelling contrasting illusion and reality, innocence and deception, joy and misery, humanity and brutality, a mosaic of beauty and monstrosity arises, making the war’s main toll clear: the final dissolution of the individual.

Image: Netflix.

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Deutsche Version, Versión en español

Wind, rain, and languorous darkness in a fabulous forest. A vixen and her three kits sleep peacefully in their hideout, until the sound of thunder makes her wary. Outside, what seems at first a thunder is the sound of shelling disturbing the peaceful beauty of tall trees and the fresh air of the woods with the horror of death. Nearby, there is war, and the corpses of young men are spread all over the battlefield. Unlike the vixen’s kits, protected and nourished by their mother, the soldiers killed in action seem worn out, starved by their motherland. Amid battle cries and the terrorized faces of his comrades, violently losing their lives in a second, the young soldier Heinrich Gerber (Jakob Schmidt), advances relentlessly and mechanically, functioning as one of the murdering pieces in the engine of carnage, assassinating, going mad, intoxicated by the frenzy of death. Nevertheless, the war machinery, never becoming enough fodder to appease its appetite, longs for the last thing Heinrich has yet to give: his uniform. And there are hundreds of thousands of Heinrichs in this battlefield of the Great War which, in the spring of 1917, its third year, stretches its claws into the happy lives of four young Northern German students: Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer), Frantz Müller (Moritz Klaus), and Ludwig Behm (Adrian Grünewald). Born at the turn of the century, the teenagers insist on participating in the collective pursuit of victory, utterly convinced and thrilled by the seducing, urging words of their teacher: they are the fortunate “iron youth,” having the lucky chance to serve their nation in the battlefield, then “the Kaiser needs soldiers, not children,” returning “with an iron cross on a breast swollen with pride.” This lure is so hard to resist that the boys cannot wait any longer to do their part. The appealed feeling of duty is conveyed in the speeches of greatness, pressing for the relinquishment of all mental and spiritual activity for the benefit of the common cause, then there is “no time for the weakness of spirit. Every indecision, every hesitation is a betrayal of the fatherland! For modern war is like chess. It’s never about the individual, it’s always about the whole.” Dignifiedly declaimed by the boys’ respected teacher, this statement will determine all the elements of the plot. In this way, All Quiet on the Western Front confronts te audience with a visualization of war which, while remaining monochromatic, is rich in meaningful contrasts. The warmongering words of the teacher, for instance, spoken in a neat school atmosphere of an idyllic German village, are ironically echoed by scenes depicting the standard handling of the equipment of death in the Western front; the blood-soaked uniform of the late soldier Heinrich is just one of thousands arranged in bundles, undergoing a systematized re-processing of boiling, washing, and mending, making them suitable for the next wearers, whoever they might be. The loyalty to the “fatherland” is indeed not about the single event of the individual sacrifice, which bothers no one in the front, but about the the slaughter of a whole generation as an uneventful everyday praxis.



Illusion and Reality, Innocence and Deception

The bourgeois school friends Paul, Albert, Frantz, and Ludwig, as well as the wise fatherly shoemaker Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Abraham Schuch) and the audacious young man Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanović) – both illiterate and appearing on the scene as soon as the boys reach the trenches –, are the main faces of the story, but all of them represent the silent mass of children and men from different social classes sent to the slaughter, melding into the greyness of the battlefield together. Nevertheless, there is still a twisted instrumental individual aspect resurfacing in the collective business of war depicted in All Quiet on the Western Front. Despite of the common quest, the new recruits see themselves as “chosen” to comply with their duty and are therefore unable to see through the machinery of death laying bare in front of their eyes. Many of their uniforms still carry the name labels of their former owners, which are removed on the spot and thrown to the floor by the commanders with the deceptive, casual comment: “Yes. It was probably too small for the guy. That happens here all the time.” A shot of the floor, covered with the removed name labels of the dead soldiers, reveals what the innocent eyes of the young recruits are yet unable to see. All Quiet on the Western Front makes visible these paradoxical moments, in which the individual soldier, in search for the singularity of heroism, for belonging to an “iron youth,” soon metamorphoses into nothing more than a little wheel of a uniformed apparatus, continuously torn by death and mended or replaced, just like the uniform he is wearing, and even becoming a tentative date of expiration as soon as he arrives: “Frantz Müller, right? The High Command expects you to survive at least six weeks. Do you want to be alive in six weeks?” This vicious dealing with human lives is represented throughout the film, in which the boys are referred to as a “load” that must be brought to the front, attaining its more cruel expression when Paul Bäumer discovers a whole battalion of dead kids and Kat comments: “Soon, Germany will be empty.” All Quiet on the Western Front unveils in this way the deception and dehumanization of youth as the essential elements of a war driven by a delusive patriotism, in which the German military and reactionary elites perfidiously recreate the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin: the tale of a colourfully dressed ratter taking revenge of unpaying clients by luring their children away from them forever, with wonderful music. In this story, this role is played by respectable powerful men leading the children of the country away forever, seducing them with the melodies of heroism and glory. This ironic paradox turns conspicuous in the reverent admiration with which the four friends receive their uniforms and march enthusiastically, singing their way to the front, and expect to continue the thrill until they march in Paris, the longed climax of their triumph. But their dreams do not stop there. Naively convinced of their superiority, they fantasize about their lives after victory, singing of the love expecting them, when the war is over: “Girl, I love you. But marriage is not possible yet. Wait a year. Then it will be true.”



Joy and Misery, Humanity and Brutality

The extent of the deception of the innocent youth plays an important part in All Quiet on the Western Front since, right at the beginning of the film, the joyful recruits appear to be playing war until they are not. The speeches of greatness purposedly condition their willingness for the fight, until they are caught in a war machinery that deprives them of their agency at last. In the words of young soldier Ludwig, this feeling of powerlessness literally translates to a corporal feeling in the brutal cold of the trenches: “I imagined it somehow differently… My hands. I can’t feel my hands anymore.” And what the boys take for a joke in the words of their commander, ordering them to keep their weapon clean, taking care of “her” as a girlfriend, becomes deadly – and sadly – serious: the weapon becomes the only “girlfriend” many of them could ever have; her, or the image of a woman in a French advertising poster that ends up being the first and last love of the eventually delusional soldier Frantz: “Bonjour madame, je suis Kropp, et toi? Tu veut venir avec moi?” All Quiet on the Western Front shows youthful dreams crushing against the brutality of trenches, flamethrowers, lethal gas, tanks; and while the young soldiers become more and more brutalized, their actions turn more and more horrid – their coming of age taking place in the cruellest way –, both the nature and civilians surrounding them do not remain untouched by the occurrences of the battlefield, transforming themselves too: many trees become uncanny, deformed, rotting from the inside, while the gaze of the otherwise harmless child, living in the farm that is constantly robbed by Kat and Paul, becomes sombre and murderous. These enduring traces of war are reflected by Paul: “I can’t take off two years of hand grenades like a sock. We’ll never get rid of the stench,” and by the badly wounded Tjaden in his final agony: “I will never be a country policeman anymore.” Nevertheless, the dead trees and empty eyes are also juxtaposed with the remaining living woods, still high and beautiful, and the fresh, fragrant scarf of a French girl, a treasure, as last reminiscent of a homey world outside for the boys, signifying that life is still there, somewhere. Ignored by the soldiers, there is also a world above them fighting for their lives, in the spheres of power deciding their fate, as a second narrative strand skilfully added to the story: the social democrat Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), a historical figure, represents the forces trying to put an immediate end to the carnage, after acknowledging the dead of forty thousand men in a matter of weeks, many teenagers among them such as “Albrecht, Karl. Diepholz. September, 14th, 1898”; “Blumenthal, Samuel. Dresden, Novemver, 6th, 1900”; “Von Gallwitz, Gustav. Osnabrück, June, 20th, 1899.” Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front does not miss to highlight, in this way, the humanitarian efforts still present in the country, colliding with the recklessness of the German military elite, represented by the fictive figure of General Friedrich (Devid Striesow), a man who insists on burning the last resources until the very end. In the middle run, however, the latter would fatally prevail. Only twenty-two years later, the same murderous energies, with another face, would finally march in Paris at the expense of innumerable victims. But the sacrificed German “iron youth” of World War I would never live to see it. And heroism never happened.

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All Quiet on the Western Front (2022), a war drama by the German director and screen writer Edward Berger, was nominated in 2023 for nine Oscars in the categories of cinematography (James Fried), international feature film (Germany), makeup and hairstyling (Heike Merker and Linda Eisenhamerová), music – original score (Volker Bertelmann), best picture (Malte Grunert, producer), production design (Christian M. Goldbeck, Ernestine Hipper), sound (Viktor Prášil, Frank Kruse, Markus Stemler, Lars Ginzel and Stefan Korte), visual effects (Frank Petzold, Viktor Müller, Markus Frank and Kamil Jafar), and writing – adapted screen play (Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson & Ian Stokell). The film is now available on Netflix.

The novel All Quiet on the Western Front by the German American writer Erich Maria Remarque, was originally published in German in 1929 and translated into twenty-six languages the same year. In the year 1933, copies of the novel were destroyed during the book burning campaign of the National Socialists. Berger’s film is the first German cinematic adaption of Remarque’s novel. You can get your book copy here.

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