French filmmaker Francois Truffaut said there is no such thing as an anti-war movie because all movies become pro-war. Movies like The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Saving Private Ryan show us the horrors of war but they still was us to be proud of what the military went through. It’s in a culture to love the military as we’re taught, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
But think about it? If you can hate war, does that mean you have to love the one doing the fighting? Which side do you pick? The one who shoots first or the one who shoots back. All Quiet on the Western Front, released on Netflix, is the third adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel. It’s told from the point of view of a German soldier about German soldiers. They were the bad guys. Or so we were taught.
Western Front has the similar pro-Germany rhetoric (similar to here in America) forced on young people so they could enlist. Missing from this adaptation is the training sequences with Corporal Himmeltoss probably because director Edward Berger (who also co-wrote the script) feels this has been done before. Also missing is the aging instructor who encourages our protagonist and his friends to go off and join the war effort for their country. Instead, we get just a general elderly man giving a rousing speech to a bunch of young men. New to the story is a subplot added in which German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl) meets with German High Command about a treaty with French officials.
But the main story focuses on young Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer in his first role) as a young man, only 17, who gets his friends to forge his papers. They’re all excited about serving in the war, but get a rude reality check when they find themselves covered in mud in ankle high stagnant water in trenches as bullets and bombs go off iches from their heads. In reality, most people in Europe mostly welcomed the war back in 1914 even having festive parades as the soldiers marched to war. Many people felt it was going to be over and done with in no time. They didn’t know they were marching to the fields in which they would die and be buried in mass graves.
The opening to Western Front shows just how ugly war is as the dead are stripped of their clothes and battle fatigues that are tossed into huge laundry bundles. The bundles are shipped into the cities where they are washed, cleaned, reused, and resewn. The bodies are thrown in wooden crates stacked on top of each other side-by-side as lime is thrown on them.
Very soon, everyone realizes this isn’t fun as their friend, Ludwig Behm (Adrian Grunewald), is killed the first night of trench warfare. The next day, a supervisor tosses Paul a small satchel and tells him to collect tags and he finds Ludwig lying dead in the mud with many other blood-soaked people. He makes friends with an older soldier, Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), who functions both as a mentor.
But life in battle and in the trenches is nothing but dirty and dreary. They drink from buckets that look like they are filthy. They kill some French soldiers while raiding their bunker and gorge on their food with blood literally on their hands as real food seems to be sparce. At one point, they steal a goose from a nearby farm to kill and cook, even though the farmer shoots at them.
More and more of Paul’s friends die somewhat gruesome deaths. The French use flamethrowers on soldiers in the trenches as they have little room to run. When a soldier doesn’t die too quickly from being set on fire, they shoot him fatally. When Paul can’t shoot soldiers with his rifle, he begins to stab and bludgeon them, at one point using a helmet to bash in a soldier’s face.
There’s no glory. They’re constantly covered in mud, grime and dried blood. On the flip side, Ezberger and others meet in rooms where there’s questions on whether the croissants are fresh or a day old. The scenes of the Germans meeting with the French, who act rather unwilling to budge on negotiations, serve as an attempt to show how the German government had no other choice but to sign the treaty. Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montelambert), the Supreme Allied Commander, only gives the Germans 72 hours to sign it.
Then Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates and Ezberger is given orders to sign the treaty which they do around 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 ceasefire will be at 11 a.m. that morning. A lot of historians look to this treaty as well as the Treaty of Versailles as the stepping stones of the events that led to World War II. Ramarque wrote the book during the Weimar Republic which followed the end of World War I up to Adolf Hitler’s election as Chancellor of Germancy in 1933. It was a period of economic problems and tensions not just in Germany but all over Europe.
Ezberger would later be assassinated at 45 on Aug. 26, 1921, less than three years after the Armistice by the right-wing terrorist group Organisation Consul. Since this movie is made by German filmmakers with German backers, they’re probably trying to make it look like officials had no other choice. But I really think it shows how there are no good guys in war. The French and Germans are equally bad.
As word of the Armistice spreads, a German general Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) who is no fan of the treaty, orders an attack on the French for one last victory. But all it results in is more bloodshed and carnage. And another young soldier is tossed a small satchel to college dog tags. There’s no romance of war and no final moments “honoring the bravery of those who fought.” There’s just title cards of how little was accomplished since they fought among a few hundred meters with little advancement on either side.
Several movies have been made about the “futility of war” but they’re stopping short of true cynicism. Berger doesn’t worry about what some war enthusiasts thinks. I remember some redneck bubba behind me in the theater when I saw Saving Private Ryan scream, “It’s about damn time!” when the scared corporal shoots the Czech soldier he saved earlier. The Czech fatally shoots the captain played by Tom Hanks. But what people didn’t realize is the corporal shot the Czech in anger. There was nothing heroic about it.
And theres nothing heroic about bashing a man’s face in with a helmet or setting someone on fire as they’re trying to surrender. War is about killing and senseless murder. The best way to make people kill strangers during war time is to make them angry. But why and how? Easy, you tell them, it’s all for the good of their country.
What do you think? Please comment.