While some war movies choose to let their battles play out like sequences from a standard action movie and tell stories that glorify the participants, others instead try to emphasize the true costs involved, letting us wallow in the misery, muck, and violence that soldiers actually experience on the front lines. Those familiar with the 1929 novel of the same name or its 1930 film adaptation will already know that this story falls firmly into the latter camp. Everyone else should prepare themselves for what is quite likely the feel-bad movie of the year.
In the opening scenes we follow a German soldier in World War I as he and his comrades execute an attack on the French which he ultimately doesn’t survive. We then follow his uniform as it is cleaned, repaired, and sent back out to be used by a new soldier, in this case 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), who goes against his family’s wishes to enlist in the German Army with his schoolmates Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer), Franz Müller (Mortiz Klaus), and Ludwig Behm (Adrian Grünewald). Having been fed a steady stream of nationalistic pro-war propaganda they are practically jubilant about signing up, a feeling which is only further reinforced by a rousing speech delivered to all of the new recruits. Their romantic ideas about what war will be like begin to crumble pretty quickly upon arriving at the trenches along the border with France. Seeing Paul’s reaction, older soldier Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch) takes the group under his wing and tries to keep them oriented as their location begins taking enemy shelling.
While all of this is going on, German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) is trying to convince the German High Command to begin talks with the Allied powers in order to avoid further loss of life on top of already staggering numbers. As the peace talks begin, the friends get a reprieve from the fighting with a relatively cushy assignment away from the fighting, but the refusal of some German commanders to accept the possibility of surrender leads to the unit being brought back to the trenches where chaos, terror, and death once again surround them.
While it is impressively mounted, features some breathtakingly beautiful shots of the countryside interspersed throughout, and even allows for a few moments of levity amongst the friends, the primary tone of this movie is one of almost overwhelming bleakness. The futility and brutality of war aren’t exactly new themes to explore, but they are rarely hammered home as thoroughly as they are here. Written by director Edward Berger along with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, the script takes after the novel in that it doesn’t try to be subtle in what it’s trying to convey, and combined with excellent work by the cast, striking cinematography by James Friend and the haunting and sometimes jarring score by Volker Bertelmann it absolutely succeeds. It may be a difficult watch at times, but it feels like a necessary one, with lessons that bear repeating if current world events are anything to go by. In this latest version of All Quiet on the Western Front Berger and company have crafted a modern war masterpiece. ★★★★★
rated r for strong bloody war violence and grisly images.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor