‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ Isn’t the Antiwar Film We Need
The film fails to meet the moment because it fails to understand that Remarque isn’t warning us about war. He’s warning us about the people who would convince us to start one.
Netflix’s film adaptation of Erich Remarque’s groundbreaking 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front was released last week to an audience eager for a modern cinematic retelling of the story. It is a spectacular visual achievement deploying the viewer to a gutting, vivid world of fear, death, and mass slaughter that embodies the horrors of World War I. However, it also falls short of the chief aim of Remarque’s original novel: delivering an antiwar message of substance.
All Quiet on the Western Front, directed by German filmmaker Edward Berger, falls into the same trap as many modern films that aspire to an antiwar sentiment. It conflates antiwar messaging with the action shots, bloodshed, and carnage that are at the heart of why war is indeed so terrible. Netflix’s adaptation is heavy on the latter and relatively light on the former.
The story follows Paul Bäumer, a seventeen-year-old schoolboy eager to enlist in the German army and go off to war, so eager, in fact, that he forges his parents’ signatures on his enlistment papers. Unlike the novel, which starts toward the beginning of World War I, Netflix’s film starts in 1917, closer to the war’s end. Most of the narrative takes place in the war’s final days. Its message seems to center on war’s sheer dumb futility. Bäumer loses friend after friend in quick succession, all while negotiators frantically seek an armistice many miles away. It culminates in a crescendo of pointless slaughter as the clock ticks toward the time at which the armistice is implemented.
The action sequences are long and rightly horrific, demonstrating the unspeakable cruelty of the Western Front’s grinding war of attrition. They are often interspersed by warm moments among the soldiers behind the frontlines or drudgery in the trenches but many critical scenes from Remarque’s masterpiece—scenes that elide a more mature antiwar message than the one Netflix’s subscribers have received—are noticeably missing.
Importantly, Remarque’s novel is in much more regular dialogue with the home front wherein the politics of nationalist euphoria find a warm hearth among the Germans who have never experienced war. Young Paul, still a schoolboy at the start, is one such innocent. He and his classmates are enchanted by the fiery rhetoric of his schoolmaster, Kantorek, who is only afforded a brief appearance in the Netflix adaptation. Kantorek waxes patriotic about the boys’ duties to serve the Fatherland and praises Germany’s “iron youth.” His words stir the boys to action and they gleefully enlist. Only after much of Paul’s class is massacred on the Western Front does Kantorek grudgingly join the war himself, not voluntarily but as a conscript, his hypocrisy crystalized.
Delbert Mann’s brilliant 1979 film adaptation of the book imagines a scene in which Paul, after being wounded at the front, returns home to Germany and confronts Kantorek in his classroom. The old man is still enthusiastic and decries the “defeatism” of his current class of boys to which Paul sharply retorts that they’re “just boys” who “want to play, laugh, just stay alive.”
Echoing the novel, the 1979 film makes much of another scene in which Paul, having returned home, visits a beer garden with his father and another former schoolmaster. Here the two old men rhapsodize about a war they have never seen and press Paul to tell them of the fighting spirit of the German boys still in the trenches. Feeling disconnected from the home he once yearned to come back to, Paul returns to the front, ironically the only home—the only family—he has left.
The sacrifice of critical dialogues like these for more protracted scenes of mud, blood, and guts belie the unseriousness of the Netflix film’s antiwar discourse relative to the novel it interprets and its cinematic predecessor from 1979. The film’s overarching theme is that the leaders are fools and the men pay the price all for a cause that is not clearly defined. But its expression of that theme is superficial. A viewer gets the sense that one should take away from this film the grizzly (yet beautifully shot) war scenes more than any “antiwar” missive. Indeed, the film seems to be popularly characterized as an antiwar epic not due to its unquestionable merits as such but rather because the novel on which the movie is based is one of the best-known antiwar novels of all time. If the novel is a sophisticated critique of the human folly of warfare, so too must be the film that depicts it.
All Quiet on the Western Front is very nearly apolitical in its approach to critiquing the casual brutality and pointless butchery of World War I. Yet an antiwar message is inherently political for it is the politics of a useless war that make it so. Delbert Mann’s film got it right, coming off the heels of the Vietnam War which imposed upon the United States many of the same harsh lessons Erich Remarque sought to teach his fellow Germans. Remarque’s talent was to bring the two spheres—military and political—into alignment in a natural way that delivers a powerful message: what we do and say (and for whom we vote) at home has consequences. Every nationalistic sermon, every ignorant conversation over a beer about something going on “over there,” and every blind obeisance paid to a politician urging us to “do more,” has real ramifications for real human lives.
The shortcomings of the Netflix adaptation are compounded by the dire need for an antiwar response to our present moment. As in Remarque’s time, war once again rages in Europe. Putin’s Russia is replete with Kantoreks of their own who spew Russian nationalism in an effort to prod an exhausted people further into a hole of their own making. In the West, there are also many who would meet a NATO intervention in Ukraine with a smile.
The film fails to meet the moment because it fails to understand that Remarque isn’t warning us about war. He’s warning us about the people who would convince us to start one. He’s warning us about Kantorek and about the “iron youth” he melted in the fires of his war.
Scott Strgacich is a graduate student at American University studying grand strategy and the origins of European security. He can be found on Twitter @scottstrga.