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(Not) All Quiet on the Western Front

When it comes to All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque’s work will always sit in the pantheon of the greatest books ever written on war. This article though concerns the 2022 film of the same name. I am solely focused on the 2022 version, not the 1979 version, and I have left it out to avoid comparisons. This article, like the film, is not for the faint of heart.

In his 1729 work ‘An Essay on Man’, Alexander Pope wrote;

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:

Man never is, but always to be blest:

The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

I use those particular words for three reasons.

1. ‘Hope springs eternal’. AQOTWF reminds us with a rabbit punch that no matter the victor or the loser, the aggressor or the defender, the conqueror or the vanquished, hope does not always spring eternal, far from it in fact. In 140 minutes, we the audience are taken through the masher with these boys and are ground down as they are. We are made to live within their relentless suffering and not just watch on. It culminates in disaster for those in the trenches and those in the Armistice Carriage eventually signing that treaty given what those terms led to. If commanders decide who win wars, it’s the soldiers that decide the score-line.

The central theme of hope is expertly explored in this masterful film. There is pervading hope to survive, a hope for the war to end faster and the hope that cherished pals will make it home as a unit, but hope is indeed all it is. We have carried a slither of hope with us since the start, but to have hope towards the climax of a happy resolution, or as it turns out to have ever harboured it at all, was in fact hopeless. The closing chapter is the definition of a world without hope, a young life extinguished in almost ironic fashion, with Paul realising there is not just no hope, but no point having ever had it at all.

2. Man is not ‘always to be blest’ in this case but cursed to fight. Mans want to spill blood is primeval, habitual, addictive and unstoppable with this new mechanised warfare displayed here with devastating effect. If you strip away the uniforms and you remove the traditional idea of sides and values, everyone involved in the film and this conflict is cursed. Nobody escapes the front unhurt, and no-one behind the lines in Compiegne leaves unscathed either, knowing what their delays are costing. We are proven as a species to be a hateful beast when at war no matter the rank. The boys live as beasts with beasts all around them no matter which side of the trenches they stand on. They do beastly things and debase the self on repeat to see which beast wins that day and then they do it all over again. How far the apple fell from those bright scenes at the beginning in crisp clothes and technicolour when they laughed about forging a signature, the stakes got higher and fast.

3. ‘A life to come’, well, there is no life beyond this Dante-like hellscape we are dropped into. Not once do we see beyond the moment in hand, the getting to night and surviving then waking and repeating orders. There is no end in sight, no ramifications of act, no retribution and no reflection. The crucible of war we are landed in doesn’t seep slowly, but attacks from all sides in all forms with all noise, all sights and all flavours all the time. The machine of war has never been better depicted in film, a foul thing that like a black hole in the centre of Europe sucking everyone and everything into its centre until only the simplest acts are possible; eating, running, dressing, breathing, digging, fighting and of course, dying.  

Choosing a side to support or searching for heroes in AQOTWF misses the point entirely of this film. It’s about all wars, all the suffering that happens and it’s about all boys who go to war, it just so happens to be the First World War in this case. Yes, its these characters we witness on this occasion, but you get the sense if you spoke to any of the thousands along the lines their stories would have been devastatingly similar.

There are broadly three acts in the film.

Learning.

Surviving.

Dying.

Learning. Most films give us long back stories to who will be our narrative guide, there are none. Most war films give us context of a broader history or a battle for a backdrop, again not here. We are learning as fast as the characters and like the barrage that smothers their dugout, we too are under fire. Some learn quickly, some don’t. Ludwig, my gosh, why do we care just so much? He’s had few lines, we are under a fifth of the way into the film, and we don’t see the actual moment, but it hurts. That there though is part of the magic of the film, its tension and atmosphere immediately make the stakes high. Only Mr Berger the director will ever know the ‘how’. How quickly these boys learn to become machines and don’t question the task is frightening, and over a century ago, how they endured staggers me still.

Surviving. Kat, the definition of the word, perhaps even the definition of what we think a soldier is and should be, especially from the First World War. Part cynic, part hustler, part accepting, all bravery. He is at the centre of all the critical moments like the fleeting moments of joy; a goose, a scented scarf, a stolen poster. But for every high, the low is doubly steep; gas, earth juddering under caterpillar tracks and abandoned woods.

Dying. It’s the death of youth that smacks eternal long after the credits roll. I was left feeling a blend of sorrow and questions with the word ‘why’ ringing in my head on repeat.

The odds of AQOTWF being made were slim, and that’s felt with all involved behind the camera and how much this movie mattered, do have a look at Lesley Patterson’s tale. It’s important for the times we live in now, and for the critical German perspective of World War One and it feels to me like Edward Berger knew this and that’s why every shot, every costume and every beat of that pummelling soundtrack is deliberate. There is no fat on this film, none, and there is no shying away from anything as it demanded.

Some war films make you cheer, some make you learn. This though, well, it just made me think, and I’m all the better for it.