The reality of modern war movies — or at least good movies — is often scary and exciting at the same time. You could say it’s a contradiction, stemming from the dynamic, otherworldly nature of the film medium. Or you could say it’s a truth that expresses some basic ideas about war: the reason war persists, despite its horror, destruction, and death, is because there is something in human nature that is drawn to war. Movies play this out for us in their own way. But, again, I say good things. There’s no more telling example than “Saving Private Ryan.” I have never seen a more thrilling war film than this, and I have never seen a war film that made me face the unspeakable bloody horror and destruction of war more deeply.
By contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” feels like a stripped-down experience — morally, spiritually, and dramatically. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel, this isn’t a movie that tries to turn the infamous meat grinder horror of World War I trench warfare into some kind of “spectacle,” like Sam Mendes’ video game Apocalypse did it in 1917. The film’s protagonist, Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer), is a student who joins the German Imperial Army three years after the outbreak of the war to fight for his homeland. He was soon dispatched to the Western Front, where millions of soldiers had already been killed in what was essentially a murderous turf war with no turf.
Throughout the course of the war, very little land was “taken” by the Western Front; the position of the front never moved more than half a mile. So why are these soldiers dead? no reason. Because of a tragic – arguably obscene – historical accident: in World War I, the means of combat were caught in an old, “classic” fixed mode of combat and technology made remote slaughter possible between new realities. By the end of the war, 17 million people had fallen into these cracks.
The 1930 Hollywood version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” directed by Lewis Milestone is widely regarded as an antiwar milestone. But, of course, if you look at it now, the war scenes don’t give audiences the same shudders as they did a century ago. The standards of terror and carnage on screen have gone far beyond that. Edward Berger, the director of the new film “Silent,” puts his war scenes in the standard existential bomb — exploding on Earth, debris flying everywhere, and war is hell because its violence is — A random mode of ruthless annihilation. He does it well, but no better than that; in Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov’s war movies, he doesn’t start to touch the level of our imaginations. Paul and his soldiers jumped out of the trenches and faced relentless bullets, they were dipped face down in the mud, they were shot in the gut or in the head, they were attacked with bayonets and machetes.
However, the pale, good-hearted Paul, whose new uniform had been dislodged from the corpse of a fallen soldier (a point meant to illustrate the endless cycle of death in World War I), somehow continues to fight and survived. He strikes us as a gentle young man, but he has a ruthless killer at heart. Turning to shoot one soldier, then slashing another, he essentially becomes a desperate action hero, and I say this only because I don’t find his on-field acumen particularly convincing. Berg, as a filmmaker, wants us to “close” to the war, but the horrors of All Quiet on the Western Front are right in front of you, and it’s pretty neatly presented. Maybe that’s why it feels numb.
Great War movies don’t skimp on incorporating personal drama into combat. They feature avant-garde characters and define it as their theater of violence. But the new “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a two-and-a-half-hour minimalist drama, as if it were some measure of the film’s integrity. The soldiers, including Paul, are barely sketched out, and you’re candidly relieved when the film cuts to the traditional scene of German Vice Chancellor Matthias Erzberg (Daniel Breuer) because he Attempts to reach a settlement with the French general had defeated the Germans. Negotiations were one-sided; the French, who had all the cards, wanted to surrender on their terms. But we recorded in Erzberger’s back the unspeakable resentment of German officers, which of course carried over to the next war.
Stanley Kubrick made one of the greatest films about trench warfare with Paths of Glory, and he wasn’t shy about getting us into the actual drama. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is such a prophecy that once the armistice is reached, there will still be another episode of fighting, all in over-prominent tragic irony that the death toll in World War I was for no reason continuously upgraded. Any sane person would agree with this. However, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a thematic statement of war movies. It constantly expresses its point of view, leaving you more broken than empty.