When he first glanced at the script for a new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, Daniel Brühl was immediately hooked. “When I was growing up, this was one of the most important books we read. I think almost all of us read it at school and it so impressed us. When I was older I felt I had to read it again.” So, almost 100 years after it was published, being able to adapt it cinematically in its original language for the first time was something Brühl was “immediately intrigued by”.
The German-Spanish actor is best known for his roles in Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Rush (2013), where he played the late Formula One great Niki Lauda. He says that after 25 years in the business – and now able to pick and choose what he does – it is not the size of a role but myriad other factors that draw him to a film. In All Quiet …, directed by Edward Berger, it was the “desire to tell this story out of a real moral interest”, says Brühl. He is one of its executive producers working alongside his friend, Malte Grunert, with whom he became a partner at the production company Amusement Park Film in 2015.
All Quiet on the Western Front (in German: Im Westen Nichts Neues – or “Nothing New in the West”) is a devastating story of school leavers on the brink of adulthood who are lured, by promises of adventure and glory, to join their comrades on the front in France. There, they are immediately assaulted by the hideous truth of war. The lead role of Paul Bäumer is tenderly and brilliantly played by newcomer Felix Kammerer, a 27-year-old stage actor from Vienna who had never acted in front of cameras before.
Brühl plays a character not in Remarque’s original version – the real-life liberal Catholic politician Matthias Erzberger, who in 1918 persuaded the German powers that be that, after four years of punishing warfare in which millions had died, it was time to admit defeat and negotiate a ceasefire with the French.
“He’s a very admirable, interesting figure in German history because he was very persistent. He did not let himself be intimidated,” Brühl says. Erzberger – who lost his own son to the Spanish flu while he was serving in the military – was murdered by nationalists in 1921. “He was used as a scapegoat for the failures of the peace, and later labelled a big traitor by the Nazis,” Brühl says. He admits that he had learned little about him at school; only now is Erzberger being recognised in Germany for what he achieved.
Brühl says that there was “quite some pressure” to make the film work – not least because they were dealing with one of the most successful German-language books of all time, the publication of which was followed swiftly by the hugely popular Lewis Milestone film of 1930 (which won two Oscars for best picture and best director) and later Delbert Mann’s highly acclaimed 1979 television production. Milestone’s film, while celebrated in Hollywood, provoked an antisemitic uproar in Germany. When the Nazis came to power, it was banned from cinemas, while Remarque’s novel was burned on the bonfire of books that propaganda minister Josef Goebbels deemed “degenerate”.
“I grew up watching war films. In most cases they are American or British and include a positive heroic story,” Brühl says. “But the genre of war films from the German perspective is practically nonexistent: because of our perpetrator role, our view is marked by grief and shame. But to capture the essence of this tale, an absolute anti-war novel, which shows that there are no winners in war – as we Germans know better than anyone – felt very important. Remarque said his intention was to write as much a postwar tale as an anti-war tale, dedicated to those who had survived the war as he had survived it, but whose lives were damaged for ever.” This is a story that needs to be told over and over again, he insists. “And it’s maybe interesting now to share this German perspective with the world.”
There is nothing of the air of vanity that surrounds some remakes. It was a struggle to film during the pandemic. And since the Russian invasion of Ukraine eight months ago, its timing seems disturbingly auspicious, its subject matter shockingly relevant. “Watching the scenes with General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) – who can’t face the shame of the ceasefire and sends his German troops in for one last bloody confrontation before it is officially in place – I was struck by the parallels with Vladimir Putin, sitting in Moscow and sending men to the front. Also, to see today, even in a world that is so well connected and globalised, how easy it remains to get into people’s heads and how quickly nationalism and populism can return.”
The film is close to the novel, embracing Remarque’s reportage-style telling of events, including gruesome descriptions of violence that leave little to the imagination as well as the flashes of dark wit. But it also inserts an additional dimension, by featuring the signing of the ceasefire agreement in a small blue railway carriage in the forest near Compiègne, northern France, which puts the film in a discernible historical context. The vainglorious political decision to allow young men to be used as cannon fodder is starkly portrayed.
“Film-wise, storytelling-wise, you could say it’s actually a bit of a relief to leave the horrors of the front and to then go to the comfort of the train,” Brühl says. “But it’s equally shocking to see all these guys in their polished uniforms eating croissants and having tea in fine bone china and arguing over whether and how to get this peace treaty signed, knowing the longer they take the more lives will be lost.”
It may be something of a shock for Brühl fans, used to his youthful grin (though he points out that he is now 44 and “in the midst of a middle‑age crisis”), to see him playing this double-chinned, sweating, middle-aged man (who is 39 but looks far older). “I had to wear a pillow under my shirt as I didn’t have time to gain the necessary weight, plus I had to do another role immediately after that,” he says. He’s speaking from a hotel room in Boston where he is filming a screen adaptation of The Collaboration in which he plays Bruno Bischofberger, the renowned art promoter who was the first to suggest a collaboration between the artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. After that, he will film Rich Flu alongside Macaulay Culkin and Rosamund Pike, “a wild script and a mix of genres, both a satire and a thriller, in which a deadly disease starts killing off all the super rich and then people start trying desperately to get rid of all their wealth”.
In the US, where he has made a name for himself in a way that non-native English-speaking actors rarely do, Brühl is often described as a global everyman, or the most polyglot actor in Hollywood (he is fluent in several languages). He and Christoph Waltz, the Austrian actor alongside whom he appeared in Inglourious Basterds, have been occasionally amused by this. “There are certain parallels in how people see us, because we speak more than one language,” he says. But he adds that it is “definitely an advantage. It’s good, for future roles, when they can’t put you in a box.”
He has just finished filming Lone Scherfig’s The Movie Teller, about a girl with a gift for telling stories, in which he plays the part of a diplomatic European who earns the trust of Chilean mining families. Upcoming filming for Rich Flu takes place down the road from his house in Spain (he also lives in Berlin), which is useful, as he increasingly tries to shape his work so that it can fit in around his two young children.
Creating his own projects also helps in this regard; last year he made his debut as director with Next Door (Nebenan), in which he played a self-involved version of himself. For his next film, he is working again with the Austrian literary talent Daniel Kehlmann, “and I want to explore psychological horror”. But he won’t tell much about it. “It’s too soon,” he says.
• This article was amended on 26 October 2022 to correct the spelling of Bruno Bischofberger.
All Quiet on the Western Front is on Netflix from 28 October.