Best Picture Showcase: All Quiet on the Western Front
Edward Berger Delivers the Most Harrowing and Heartrending War Movies In Years
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”
War, for whatever reason, sells. These bleak tales of loss and sorrow continue to attract audiences worldwide, throwing them through the wringer with every explosion and gunshot. Maybe we watch out of respect for those that have fallen. Or maybe there’s some twisted pleasure we get out of watching these brutal films, akin to our attraction to bloody serial killer documentaries. From soldier’s screams for their mothers and guts spilled on the beach of Omaha in Saving Private Ryan’s graphic D-Day sequence to Beast of No Nation’s disturbing oner following its child protagonists gang-rape a woman, the genre of war has given us some of the most horrifying sequences ever put on film. And to add to this disturbing collection is All Quiet on the Western Front.
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same title (Remarque’s own experience as a soldier inspired the bulk of the story), All Quiet follows Paul Bäumer, a German soldier stationed on the titular western front during World War 1. Young, high on life, and eager for the supposed “glory” of being a soldier, Paul begins the film as a pure, hopeful adolescent, unvarnished from the horror and evils of the world. Anchored down by an impeccably subtle performance from newcomer Felix Kammerer, Paul is a fascinating lens into war’s brutality and cruelty, wrenching him along from one tragedy to the next. As his soul is beaten down, so is ours, as Kammerer strikes every subtle nuance with a precise restraint that never makes the character seem like a caricature or a poorly drawn warning. Just as he resembles all of the young men deluded into fighting unnecessary wars, Paul feels startlingly real. His pain and suffering slowly become our own as he clings on to any humanity left inside him.
I’m hard-pressed to think of another war entry that emanates such a striking and unsettling tone. Every frame, every movement, every sound is rooted in fear, crafting a terrifying atmosphere where the audience is forced to face whatever new horror lurks around enemy trenches and isolated barricades. As Paul and his comrades are dragged through the horrors of war, the body count grows higher, and the feeling of dread swells until it’s almost unbearable, clouding the image of a happy ending filled with the glory and prosperity that Paul was initially sold on. Elevated by the unsettling creaks and moans of Volker Bertelmann’s chilling score (even though those chills don’t quite measure up to Justin Hurwitz’s dynamic Babylon score), each sequence the film offers is filled with terrifying screams of agony and fresh scares that up the ante with each passing firefight. One setpiece that stands out particularly is the horrifying tank sequence, expertly set up with what is probably the most unsettling shots in war cinema history (you’ll know the one).
Even for a film with four Oscar wins (out of nine total nominations) and an impressive Metacritic score of 78, I’ve found a shocking amount of criticism and backlash to this film, and even more shockingly, I agree with all of it. All Quiet On The Western Front is a bleak tale that forces its bleakness down your throat, throwing its theme against the screen over and over until it feels worn out and repetitive. And it’s hard to endure a movie like that with a runtime of 2 hours and 23 minutes. The only defense I could give the film is that it makes one hell of an impact emotionally. While we’re repeatedly struck that, as Hemingway put it, war is a crime, no matter the reason, All Quiet leaves its mark with devasting deaths and gutwrenching sequences bordering body horror, showing how terrifying war truly is.
All Quiet On The Western Front is a film that will stay with me for years to come. With the brutally honest depiction of Paul’s descent into madness and nihilism, All Quiet digs its claws into the primal instinct of every human being: survival. It cuts straight to the core, even when continuously saying the same thing. If the vote were to me, speaking strictly on craft, All Quiet On The Western Front would have taken home all the gold Oscar night.