Arts & Entertainment

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is traumatic in any rendition— as it should be

Though it differs from the original novel, Netflix’s German film adapts it with competence and strength to match the 1930 version.

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” was released on October 28 of this year on Netflix, and is based on the novel published in 1929 by German author Erich Maria Remarque. The book is firmly anti-war and provides insight into the extreme trauma soldiers face. The story follows Paul Baümer, a young German soldier during World War I.

The book is effective in portraying the horrors of war as well as the emotional complications that come with it, contrasting scenes of comradery with horrific death. A story told from the losing side is more powerful as the death and destruction feel even more pointless.

Before the 2022 film interpretation, there was another very successful adaptation in 1930, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This picture was a huge accomplishment for its time, with an incredible scale and visuals. The first battle in the trenches has impressive explosions and backgrounds. It adapts the book very faithfully, aside from telling Paul’s tale in a more linear way than the book–with some dialogue lifted directly from the English translation.

It does a good job of establishing a sense of comradery between the characters and then breaking them down by displaying the shocking tragedies as time goes on. This interpretation seems to be the best for building the character’s friendships first and providing contrast for later on. While watching this film through a modern lens, the acting can feel a bit old-fashioned and somewhat stiff. But it does show a surprising amount of violence and graphic scenes. 

Most might not think of old films as being violent; this film is more realistic due to the fact that it was released pre-Hays Code, which meant that at the time Hollywood was not overly censored as it was between 1934 and 1968 (when the code was in effect), and could show these things. It fairly represents Remarque’s anti-war message and is truly epic. 

The film released in 2022 differs significantly from the book and the 1930s adaptation. However, this is not a bad thing. It is a new perspective, and it would seem pointless to remake if the new one simply replayed each plot point in the same way. 

An important difference with the 2022 version is that it is in German. Unlike the 1930s version, which is in English; This allows the film to feel more authentic, which sets it apart from the other adaptations. 

Lead actor Felix Kammerer, who plays Paul, puts in a tear-jerking performance. While director and writer Edward Berger changed a lot of elements of the plot from the novel, he does so without losing its spirit. It does well showing the vicious cycle that war can bring, with the beginning of the movie following the uniform of a dead soldier as it is assigned to a new person; this shows how many soldiers die only to be replaced by thousands more. This installment also introduces a new plotline that follows Daniel Brühl’s character as he attempts to negotiate a peace treaty with the enemy. 

While it is not necessary, this addition to the story did provide more context and showed how selfish men are willing to send innocent children out to die for their cause. 

Netflix’s version is extremely difficult to watch and does not hold back by starting the film in the trenches, showing countless gruesome and devastating deaths. By today’s standards, the 1930s version is less upsetting– but all iterations of Paul’s story are brutal, with unrelenting violence and heartbreaking scenes. In a lot of ways, the book remains the most despairing of them all. But due to Remarque’s real experiences and his perspective, it’s unlikely anything could top it, though 2022’s visuals are enough to turn one’s stomach. 

Something that the book and films do well is showing the progression of the bright-eyed eager children who want to fight for their country as they are turned into beaten-down and traumatized soldiers who feel they have no place in society. 

In the 1930 version, as in the book, Paul goes on leave to find that he does not fit in with regular people in his town. This character development is instrumental in demonstrating one of the many faults of war–the 1930s version in particular exemplifies this, while the 2022 film leaves it out. 

Despite the atrocities depicted, both the 1930 and 2022 features have beautiful imagery.

In the Netflix film, cinematographer James Friend was able to capture spectacular beauty despite the horrific events; each shot was a masterpiece. Peaceful landscape shots were interspersed throughout, and the lighting and contrast in the battle sequences was awe-inspiring.  

1930s cinematographers Arthur Edeson and Karl Freund accomplished a stunning sense of scale with the battle sequences. 

Remarque began his novel with a disclaimer:

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”

Each film does this justice with the theme clear throughout. The 2022 film is more impactful today, but the original adaptation should not be ignored. The 2022 movie is available to stream on Netflix and is playing in select theaters, while the 1930s version is available to rent on most digital platforms such as Amazon Prime, Google Play, and YouTube. Both are worth viewing and well-deserving of the praise they have received. The book is an amazing (albeit depressing) read as well; there is a reason it has been adapted more than once.