“This is not how I expected it to be,” cries a shivering 17-year-old on his first experience of trench warfare on his first day in the front. The new German entry to the Oscars is the adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front now available on Netflix and is a masterpiece of German realism.
Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 book is a classic about the futility of a great power war, so much so that it got banned by the Nazis. The movie stays remarkably close to the original’s sentiment. The book and the movie start with the early days of the Great War, the last feudal war where rules of civility and honor were still followed. A bunch of 17-year-old schoolboys cheer their Prussian history teacher who charges them with defending Kaiser, God, and fatherland, and they head off to a man-made horror far beyond their dim-witted comprehension.
The story follows a boy named Paul Baumer, a university aspirant, who was about to follow the middle class footsteps into the imperial bureaucracy of a country that once gave birth to Goethe and Schiller. The only private moments on the front are when a man makes peace with his God. In an uncomfortably long scene, Paul is stuck in a shallow puddle in the No Man’s Land with a French kid whom he stabs seven times, shredding his lungs. But men are hard to kill, and the French soldier lies there coughing blood with accusing eyes looking at an increasingly devastated Paul, who realizes that the other man is just a son or a brother. The camera zooms in on Paul’s mud-caked, gaunt, animalistic face, noticing the changes in expression from sheer terror, to grief, to incomprehension, to utter remorse, and finally to broken existential bleakness.
There are changes to the novel. Some deaths are different than the book, and one cannot mention them here without spoiling the story. The director claimed he wants to highlight the dangers of rising nationalism, by reimagining a classic, and it is understandable that a German would be reluctant to embrace any form of nationalism, no matter how benevolent. But recent wars, from Iraq to Libya, were not brought about by competing nationalisms, but rather by egalitarian idealism. Even now, the “right-wing nationalists,” whether in America or Hungary or Britain, are opposed to further exacerbating the war in Ukraine, and anti-war conservatives are readily called fascists by the liberal elite and internationalist cognoscenti.