All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Edward Berger | 2hr 23min

The entire history of war movies is filled with pacifist statements rendered through violent horror, and Edward Berger’s recent adaptation of the 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front is no different in this aspect. Similar ground has certainly been covered in the 1930 film based on the same source material, though where that was a Hollywood production interpreting a specifically German experience of World War I, there is an aching, historical authenticity infused in Berger’s interpretation that speaks to his nation’s guilt and trauma. For the soldiers on the frontlines in the war’s final days, it matters very little that they are losing to the Allies, and whatever fiery patriotism they once felt for the ‘Fatherland’ is gone. All they have to do is survive long enough to see 11am on November 11. Whatever shame they face when they return home will be negligible compared to their relief of being away from the Western Front.

Before we meet any of our main characters though, Berger presages the horrors that await them with a haunting prologue tracking the uniforms that they will soon wear. His editing is patient, lingering on the deathly silence of a forest shrouded in blue mist, its tall trees reaching for the sky, and a battlefield strewn with the bodies of lifeless men. As the camera slowly levels out from an overhead shot to reveal the soul-crushing expanse of the devastation, it picks up on the movement of one German soldier crawling over the top of the trenches, heading towards his death. These opening minutes are completely void of music, until we cut to a mortifying wide shot of coffins being packed tightly together in a pit, and we are blasted with an angry, diminished triad of distorted synths. This simple motif will persist all through All Quiet on the Western Front, but it is especially as the soldiers’ uniforms are trucked off to a factory, washed, repaired, and sent to the next round of recruits that it sounds like an apocalyptic warning to Paul Bäumer and his friends.

A quiet, haunting prologue to what will be an otherwise loud and brutal 2 and a half hours, introducing us to the Western Front via some of the year’s most beautiful landscape photography.
This could be straight out of The Thin Red Line, except here there is a bleakness in the colours and overcast sky you don’t find in Malick’s work.
Mirroring the shot looking up at the trees with a shot looking down at the ground where dozens of dead soldiers lay. Slowly, the camera tracks down and then levels out with the horizon, devastatingly revealing the expanse of the carnage.

The lie fed to these young men that great glory awaits them on the battlefield can be easily traced down to a single piece of dramatic irony that Paul very nearly picks up on – the name tag of his uniform’s previous owner stitched into the fabric. That’s just a leftover from another recruit who didn’t fit the measurements, he is told, before the officer rips it off and drops it in a pile of other names that have been so thoughtlessly discarded. The disheartening implications are clear: these men are considered more expendable than even the clothes they wear.

The first time anyone notes that “this isn’t how I imagined it” comes on the very first night, when they are forced to bucket water out of the trenches just so they have somewhere to lie down. It is a minor inconvenience compared to what other adversities they are yet to suffer, but it doesn’t take long for them to recognise its triviality when the first of these men to die, Ludwig, befalls his fate a mere few hours later. The idea that one can simply ‘ease into’ these conditions is hopeless.

Fields are graded in cool blues, stripping the land of all its warmth.
Fire, smoke, and burnt-out scenery – Berger’s visual craft here is incredible.

Like The Thin Red Line before it, the bleak beauty that All Quiet on the Western Front instils in such total carnage paints out this grisly battle between the German and French as a stain on nature, lingering on frosty blue fields, withering vegetation, and landscapes ruined by the besmirchment of warfare. The flickering of bright, yellow flares up in the sky breaks this aesthetic up in one scene that feels almost spiritual in its meditative tranquillity, illuminating a desolate expanse of burnt-out trees and the silhouette of a fallen soldier tangled in a web of barbed wire, while his fellow troops gaze at the burning balls of light in awestruck wonder.

An almost spiritual interlude as flares are sent up into the sky, offering what might be one of the only warm light sources in the film.

Beyond this brief interlude though, Berger is committed to his harrowing imagery, working with a huge number of extras stretching into the distance to shoot their impending deaths like a horror film. In one scene, he lands a demoralising weight with the discovery of sixty missing German soldiers lying dead in an abandoned building, revealing that they were gassed after taking their masks off too early. Even more terrifying is the Germans’ successful assault on the French, which quickly turns against them when tanks emerge from the fog like monsters mercilessly mowing down everything in their path. As airplanes and flamethrowers join the fight, Berger adds fire and smoke to his dreary mise-en-scene, silhouetting Paul’s friend, Albert, in a disturbingly grim composition that sees him unsuccessfully beg for mercy on his knees.

This entire sequence plays out like a horror film with the tanks emerging out of the sick, yellow mist, and Albert’s hopeless surrender.
These close-ups put us in a weary headspace like that which Come and See evokes, revealing the visceral impact of war in the transformation of one young man’s face.

The sheer fluidity with which we navigate the action only adds to the visual accomplishment here as well, rolling the camera through trenches much like Stanley Kubrick did in Paths of Glory, and traversing the battlefield in long takes as we saw in 1917. The impact is visceral, refusing to let us escape from the ongoing chaos until we move into the parallel storyline of negotiations between German and Allied officials. The interior, period décor of these scenes is stunning in their soft lighting and design, noting a huge separation between those giving the orders and the ones carrying them out, though some tightness in the pacing is sacrificed in the intercutting between both.

Tracking shots across battlefields and through trenches like 1917 and Paths of Glory.
The scenes set around the negotiations of authorities make for a nice tonal contrast, revealing the gaping chasm between those making the decisions and the soldiers carrying them out.

Still, Berger does effectively manage to build these storylines to a unifying climax in the final act, raising our hopes for Paul and his remaining friends’ survival right before they are commanded to attack the French in one last show of German strength and dignity, fifteen minutes before the armistice at 11am. Paul has made some real friendships with other men while on the Western Front, and Berger spends a lot of time building out the sensitivity and warmth of these connections as the sole pleasures to be found in wartime, yet as we wind towards the end, even these companionships feel ultimately pointless. They aren’t enough to stop one soldier from killing himself out of fear of being permanently crippled, and perhaps even Paul himself could be held partly responsible for the chilling murder of his friend, Kat, by the son of a farmer they have been stealing from.

Immense compositional beauty as Kat faces up to the consequences of his thieving, set in this forest of towering, black trees and soft, blue mist.

The implication of there being quiet on the Western Front is put forward in the bookends of Berger’s film as a pair of fateful tragedies, recognising the cruel irony that only when its occupants are dead can there ever be true silence across its muddy fields and burnt forests. His direction does not hold back from demonstrating the haunting chill of these scenes either, certainly in the audio that whispers quiet breezes through the trenches, but also in the visuals which position the camera as the only moving thing in this environment. The sounds of gunshots, explosions, and screams may be confronting to hear, but All Quiet on the Western Front recognises that the true misery of war emerges in the still, lifeless aftermath, where an insurmountable grief is born.

A quiet bookend to the start of the film, returning to still, natural landscapes.

All Quiet on the Western Front is currently streaming on Netflix.

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