Opening with a haunting shot of dead bodies ironically camouflaged against the gray-brown dirt, the 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front serves as a companion piece to the 1930 original in a way that I’ve never seen an adaptation do before. While the seminal original, based on the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, indicts the romanticization of battle and remarks on the misguided hubris of those naïve young men essentially brainwashed into killing, the new Best Picture nominee concerns itself, like many modern anti-war movies, with putting the dreadful horrors of war on full display.
And while this is nothing new, director Edward Berger adds enough new components—such as a powerful moment between our protagonist and his enemy (a take on a scene from the original) as well as a horrifying tank sequence and a heartbreaking final act—to make it well worth the watch. Add to that brilliant color correction that puts the terrors right in our living rooms (this is a Netflix movie, after all) and magnificent cinematography from James Friend and you’ve got yourself a Grade-A war film.
The characters are pretty much the same as in the novel—most of all Paul (Felix Kammerer), a young man who begins his tour as a gung-ho soldier excited to prove himself but eventually becomes numb by all the bloodshed he witnesses. He befriends many comrades along the way, especially the food-obsessed Kat (Albrecht Schuch), an older soldier who takes him under his wing.
Kat is once again a fan-favorite character, with Schuch playing him more rascally than past iterations. However, it’s Kammerer who carries the film in a way that he’s never really asked to do, and with unprecedented nuance. He handily bests his progenitors with authentic, uninhibited emotion—and by saying much less. This is even more impressive considering we know nothing of Paul prior to his time on the battlefield. Every bit of investment we have for the character is garnered from the taciturn performance and brilliant direction.
For better or worse, this adaptation abandons nearly all of Paul’s life as a civilian and doubles down on his experiences on the front lines. Berger and his co-writers Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell don’t give us much background on Paul this time around or as many digressions. We don’t see his home life or get the sequence when he goes back to visit his hometown, touching on his PTSD as he realizes that he can no longer relate to anybody there, becoming nostalgic for his time back in the trenches.
Instead, the film asks us to simply accept these soldiers as kids—as humans—regardless if we know anything about them or what their lives will be like if they’re ever lucky enough to make it out alive. It’s less about Paul’s personal journey than it is the effects of violence on his life.
At times these themes are quite ham-fisted, with redundant juxtapositions between the severe conditions endured by these soldiers unsure what they’re fighting for and the comfortable generals complaining about day-old biscuits. This would have been fine if done once or twice, but these smash cuts happen at least a half-dozen times. At their best, these moments give this version something that previous renditions might have benefitted from.
Somehow, the 2022 adaptation feels even more hopeless than the others, including the source material. War brings millions of unfulfilled dreams and broken promises for those knee-deep in combat. All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t bury its effects like a lesser movie might try to do in order to hide any technical inadequacy. All of the battles take place in broad daylight, never using darkness as a crutch. And yet they feel like some of the most real and authentic we’ve ever seen—at least for those of us lucky enough to never have experienced it.