The last time a filmed adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front was nominated for Best Picture, Variety suggested distribution by the League of Nations, its premiere was sabotaged by Hitler’s Brownshirts, and the film was banned in Australia for fear that it would undermine faith in the military. Its then-radical pacifistic message proved to be a prescient omen between two World Wars and the filmmaking language it’s credited with inventing became a blueprint for the entire war genre subsequent to its release.
The 2022 remake, a German-language Netflix production from relatively unknown director Edward Berger, attempts to argue for existence on the same grounds. A war in Ukraine and apparent proximity to nuclear catastrophe would suggest the need for a reminder of the horrors of war. In reality, the new All Quiet on the Western Front represents a lateral step in the history of the war film; it ironically retreads the same path of the genres’ previous decades while undercutting its own premise through distanced filmmaking and attempts at distinction.
The 2022 All Quiet on the Western Front opens cleverly, depicting a horrifying battle through the eyes of non-characters, all rapidly dying. Very quickly, we realize that the continuity between the opening and the main plot is the uniforms, taken off the dead men before being washed and recycled for the next stage of recruits. The film instills a facelessness to its characters, framing their exchangeability as surpassing even that of military garb. Ironically, though, the film’s anonymization also feels particularly significant to the audience; anonymous characters only serve to instill the viewer with a sense of triteness. Just as this battle scene is to be retread time and time again with slightly different faces, the audience is forced to undergo that same experience, watching a trope in film after film, only to be reminded of the horrors of war yet again.
Where the film does diverge from the classical war film, it is toward inhumanity and sanitization. The camera in All Quiet has a Fincherian quality to it, gliding seamlessly through destruction and remaining an invisible observer untouched by any of war’s horrors. The lens is perpetually slick, urging the viewer to feel uninvolved in the conflict, even as its content urges on its horrors. The plot even departs from the Front on numerous occasions, switching instead to the negotiation of the armistice as the war wraps up. On the one hand, there is demonstrated meaning in the juxtaposition of the safety of the negotiation rooms and homes of the wealthy generals with the Front. The ones choosing to make the sacrifice hardly exist to experience it, a message alarmingly prescient as the war of the moment reflects a virtual proxy battle between two superpowers who don’t need to experience its horrors firsthand. Still, it draws the subject away from the war, failing in its attempt to contextualize the war in the grand drama of European history, and ultimately distancing the viewer just as much as it hopes to identify the distance of the generals.
There is something to be said about how contemporary society remains painfully belligerent in a way that justifies the existence of anti-war films. That belligerence, however, has shifted radically in the near century between the All Quiet adaptations. Where pacifism may have been the cause for a ban in 1930, the popular rhetoric of war is now increasingly tied to the language of peace, and anti-war posturing is no longer sufficient to distinguish the two. Even films like American Sniper, a film with a clear neoconservative slant constructed by an overtly hawkish filmmaker, ascribe themselves to the anti-war project. All Quiet on the Western Front has no pro-war agenda — that much can be said — but its unoriginality and authorial distance lack the conviction necessary of a film that truly befits the times.
Although there was once a time when horrible violence and petrified faces would qualify to lend a film importance, the current moment calls for more than simply cyclical pacifistic postures. All Quiet on the Western Front is a passable movie, but there isn’t any content that makes its horrors any more relevant than the hundreds of superior films upon which it’s inspired. Rather, it only serves to illustrate the reality that our expectations for peace need be higher in all realms, whether in our films, our media or, frankly, our wars.
This is the third article in a series covering each of the Best Picture Oscar Nominees.
Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]