It’s a fact of modern war movies – or, at least, good ones – that they are both terrifying and exciting at the same time. You could say it’s a contradiction that grows out of the kinetic, larger-than-life nature of media. Or you could say it’s a truth that explains a fundamental thing about war: that the very reason war goes on, with all its threats and destruction and death, is that there is something in human nature that is drawn to war. Movies, in their way, act this out for us. Once again, though, I’m talking about the good ones. There is no more powerful example than “Saving Private Ryan.” I have never seen a more thrilling war film, and I have never seen a war film that made me face, more memorably, the indescribable horror of the blood and destruction of war.
In contrast, the new German version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” feels like an event that has been broken to the bone – morally, spiritually, and dramatically. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel, it’s not a film that tries to turn the meat-grinding horror of World War I into some kind of “concert,” the way Sam Mendes’ video game apocalypse is. “1917” happened. The hero of the film, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), is a student who, three years after the war, joins the Imperial German Army to fight for the fatherland. Soon he is sent to the Front Front, a place where millions of soldiers have already been killed in what is essentially a murderous turf war where no grass changes hands.
During the war, the “grab” of land on the Western Front was small; the front line area has not been moved for more than half a mile. So why did all those soldiers die? Without reason. Because of a terrible tragedy – one could say a terrible accident – of history: that in WWI, the means of combat were found between the old, “classical” situation of silent combat and the new reality of long-distance killing made possible by technology. By the end of the war, 17 million men had fallen between the cracks.
The 1930 Hollywood version of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” directed by Lewis Milestone, is widely regarded as an anti-war landmark. But, of course, if you watch it now, the war scenes won’t make viewers shudder the way they did a century ago. The on-screen portion of terror and murder is elevated beyond that. Edward Berger, the director of the new series “All Quiet,” sets his war scenes in what has become a standard world-bombs-exploding, debris-flying-everywhere, war-is-hell-because-of-its-violence -is. -random mode of merciless destruction. He does it skillfully, but no better than that; does not begin to touch the level of imagination that has gripped us in the war cinema of Spielberg, Kubrick, Coppola, Stone, Klimov. Coming out of the trenches, Paul and his fellow soldiers encounter a merciless hailstorm, are thrown face down into the mud, are shot in the gut or head, are attacked with machetes and machetes. .
Yet the pale, soft-hearted Paul, whose newly issued uniform is from the corpse of a fallen soldier (a move meant to illustrate the endless cycle of death in WWI), somehow fights and survives. He strikes us as a gentle young man, but inside is a brutal killer. Going around shooting one soldier, then stabbing another, he becomes, in fact, a desperate action hero, and I only put that because I didn’t find his skills on the battlefield particularly convincing. Berger, as a filmmaker, wants to bring us “closer” to the war, but the horror in “All Quiet on the Western Front” is in your face and also pure in its presentation. Maybe that’s why it feels numb.
Great war movies have not hesitated about mixing personal drama into combat. It features characters as violent and is defined as their theater of violence. But the new episode of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is two and a half hours of great simplicity, as if this is a measure of the film’s integrity. The soldiers, including Paul, are not sketched, and you are clearly relieved when the film reaches the familiar images of the German viceroy, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), trying to make peace with the French generals who. they have invaded the German army. The conversation is one-sided; The French, who hold all the cards, want to surrender on their terms. But we register, behind Erzberger, the inevitable hatred of the German officers, which will undoubtedly be developed in the coming war.
Stanley Kubrick, with “Paths of Glory,” made what is still the best film about trench warfare, and he wasn’t shy about involving us in the real drama. “All Quiet on the Western Front” continues in full swing, so that even after the fighting is over there is yet another episode of fighting, all of which shows, with over-the-top irony, that the toll of World War I continued to rise unnecessarily. . Anyone with common sense will agree with that. Yet “All Quiet on the Western Front” is as much a war film as a thesis statement. It continues to make its point, leaving you more disappointed than empty.