Having cleaned up at the Baftas last week, All Quiet on the Western Front is now one of the favourites to win best picture at the Oscars in a fortnight. That’s an exciting development for Edward Berger, who directed and co-wrote the film, but German critics may not be so thrilled.
As Philip Oltermann noted in the Guardian, reviewers from Berger’s homeland have slated his first world war epic, with one key objection being that it strays so far from the source novel by Erich Maria Remarque. “One wonders whether Berger has even read Remarque’s novel,” said Hubert Wetzel in Süddeutsche Zeitung. “If the characters in the film didn’t have the same names as those in the book, it would be difficult to find significant parallels between the two works.”
He’s absolutely right. Along with his co-writers, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, Berger removes everything subtle in the book and replaces it with something absurdly bombastic, as befits a Prestigious, Important War Movie. He also omits an astonishing number of the book’s key episodes, and shoves in just as many new ones of his own. These changes may be annoying if you’re a Remarque purist, or a German film critic. But they’re also troubling in and of themselves.
Berger told one journalist that he saw the French as “the good guys in the war”, but all too often his All Quiet on the Western Front depicts the Germans as the good guys, while the French are cruel and spiteful villains. Remarque – who was denounced as “unpatriotic” by the Nazis – would have been appalled.
Just think of the novel’s opening pages. When the first-person narrator, Paul Bäumer, visits a mortally wounded friend in a field hospital, the friend complains that his watch has already been stolen. But that sequence, along with numerous others that show the German troops in a less than glowing light, has been cut from the film.
In place of these sequences are countless new scenes featuring politicians and officers negotiating the armistice – and, boy, does Berger love to emphasise the contrast between the soldiers’ privation and the toffs’ cosseted luxury. One of these scenes has a sympathetic German politician, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), urging France’s Marshal Foch (Thibault de Montalembert) to order a ceasefire. But the intransigent Foch won’t budge until Germany agrees to every one of France’s demands. “Be fair to your enemy,” pleads Erzberger. “Otherwise he will hate the peace.” He has a point, of course. But by painting such a simplistic, one-sided picture of the meeting, Berger seems to be laying the blame for the rise of the Nazis squarely at Foch’s feet.
Meanwhile, on the frontline, the French are presented as alien monsters in terrifying tanks, whereas Paul and his buddies are underdogs who battle on against the odds, and even manage some tank-busting heroics straight out of Saving Private Ryan and The Empire Strikes Back. One of Paul’s friends surrenders and begs the French for mercy, only to be incinerated alive by a flamethrower. Another of his friends is killed in cold blood by the dead-eyed, crewcut, shotgun-wielding son of a French farmer. Far from being one of the “good guys”, the boy is a figure straight out of a backwoods horror movie.
These scenes seem especially ill-judged when you remember how many critics have drawn comparisons between All Quiet on the Western Front and the invasion of Ukraine. The message the film sends is that if you invade another country, your brave lads will be brutally mistreated by that country’s soldiers and citizens. Is that really what a war movie should be saying at the moment?
The most questionable of Berger’s inventions is to have Paul himself dying after being stabbed in the back by a French soldier. The director ought to be aware of the “stab-in-the-back myth”, which claimed that the German army was not defeated in the first world war, but was betrayed by Jews, socialists and the cowardly politicians who signed the armistice for their own selfish reasons. This conspiracy theory was popular in the 1920s, and was much favoured by Adolf Hitler. For a German film about the war’s last days to risk any evocation of that antisemitic myth with a literal backstabbing is irresponsible, to say the least. Being less generous, you could call it an unforgivable distortion of Remarque’s novel.
I doubt that Berger sees it quite like that. He may well have been too focused on what one German critic called Oscar-Geilheit, or “lust for an Oscar”, to notice the jingoistic interpretations his work could invite. But even if he didn’t set out to make a film that would appeal to nationalists, Nazis and Putin apologists, that, unfortunately, is how the film may be seen.
Nicholas Barber is a freelance writer on film and pop culture