Paul Bäumer, seventeen, struggles to breathe through the yellow lens of his gas mask. He takes in his first glimpse of the western front as if he were a creature from another planet. Bullets ricochet above. Mortar shells detonate. The trench is overflowing. A sergeant, convinced Paul will be dead by dawn, removes the mask from his face and orders him to empty the trench of rainwater. A soldier steps out of the dugout. “Give a dog a bone, and he’ll always take it,” he mumbles. “Give a man strength…. Man is a beast.”
The new Netflix adaptation of Edward Berger’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front offers a grim, yet stunning depiction of trench warfare in WWI. Berger has reclaimed this story, which was originally adapted into an iconic film by Universal Pictures in 1930, with a distinctly German understanding of war and power. There are no heroes in this story. There is no moral compass. Only a nation so convinced of its own superiority that it has paved the way for its own demise. This story seems timelier than ever.
According to the book, Paul Bäumer’s descent into the heart of war begins with his teacher’s lies. Paul and his classmates, wide-eyed and innocent, believe their schoolmaster when he assures them that victory is near. They are the Iron Youth, their teacher says, fighting for “the Kaiser, God, and the Fatherland!”
That myth is shattered by the reality of war. Paul is pulled from the rubble after the first bombardment. He eats stale bread while staring into the distance, then rises to retrieve his deceased classmate’s dog tag. Paul fights to retain some semblance of humanity from battle to battle but surviving this hellscape eventually leaves him empty.
All Quiet on the Western Front, unlike most war stories, makes no attempt to justify or sentimentalize either side of the conflict. When Erich Maria Remarque began writing the novel in 1927, he hoped to capture his wartime experience with journalistic clarity. Paul and his comrades harbor no ill will toward the French. They fight because they are told to, not because they want to die. In one of the book’s most famous scenes, Paul falls into a shell-hole and buries his knife in the chest of a French soldier. For hours, he lay next to the dying Frenchman, finally confessing, “If we threw away these rifles and this uniform, you could be my brother.”
This candor helped the novel become an international best-seller and drew the attention of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle in 1930. Laemmle, who maintained close ties with family and friends in Germany, traveled to Berlin to meet Remarque and purchase the book’s rights. The film, which spared no expense in production, provided a visceral cinematic experience, immersing audiences in the sounds and images of war. When it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Laemmle became convinced that this film would prevent the world from annihilating humanity. Neither Laemmle nor Remarque could have predicted the devastation that engulfed Germany in the 1930s.
Nearly a century later, Edward Berger draws on a more complete understanding of German history in this new adaptation. While the war ended in 1918, the terms of its conclusion sparked a domestic conflict in Germany that lasted more than a decade and eventually led to World War Two. We leave Paul to follow Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) as he leads a delegation to negotiate an armistice with France. The German troops are starving, and winter is approaching. On a train carriage deep in the Compagnie Forest, the French make unwavering demands that will devastate the German military and plunge the country into a recession. Erzberger warns that if peace causes more misery than war, the German people will be disappointed.
Meanwhile, General Friedrich, a paragon of German militarism, sips wine in his commandeered chateau and rails against the “Social Democrats…selling off our Fatherland.” In his last moments of power, he orders his emaciated troops, including Paul, to charge the French lines. The General looks to the clock as his soldiers fall in a futile attack fifteen minutes before the armistice takes effect.