First German film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front shows ‘shame’ of war

Edward Berger’s adaptation of 1928 classic depicts ‘guilt and pain’ felt by Germans over being aggressor country

The director of the first German film adaptation of the classic 1928 anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front has said he hopes that a “German perspective” on the impact of war on the aggressor country would leave its mark.

“Hopefully it helps to understand that nothing good can come from war,” Edward Berger said of his adaptation – the third time that Erich Maria Remarque’s work has been given the cinematic treatment – at its premiere at the Toronto film festival. “We all know it, but we seem to be forgetting it at every turn.”

Remarque’s novel describes the calamitous effect of the first world war from the perspective of school leaver Paul Bäumer. It depicts the mental and physical anguish he and his close friends suffer as well as the alienation they feel from family and the rest of society. Bäumer lies about his age to fight for Germany, responding with euphoria to a patriotic appeal by his teacher. The novel, in German Im Westen Nichts Neues (nothing new in the west), sold 2.5m copies in the first 18 months after appearing in print and was translated into 22 languages.

Berger said that after two previous adaptations, in 1930 by the American director Lewis Milestone, which won an Academy Award, and almost 50 years later by another American, Delbert Mann, he felt it was time to grasp the opportunity to tell it from the “singular perspective” of a German.

Edward Berger at the world premiere of All Quiet on the Western Front at the Toronto film festival.
Edward Berger at the world premiere of All Quiet on the Western Front at the Toronto film festival. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

Asked in an interview in Spiegel magazine why it had taken so long to have a German adaptation of a German literary classic, Berger said: “In Germany, the memory of world war one was displaced by memories of German atrocities committed in world war two.”

In addition, he said, contrary to Britons and Americans, for whom the genre of a war film is “synonymous with the telling of heroic tales”, Germans had nothing positive with which to connect these wars. Consequently, there had for decades been little or no appetite for making a German version of the film.

Berger said he had been attracted by the chance to “tell this story now, from the point of view of a societal understanding which is very specifically German, that embraces the guilt that is also connected to the memory of the first world war”. He said he had made a film that tried to “mirror those feelings with which we have all grown up, with which my children are still growing up”.

Germany’s attitude towards its military was far more critical and ambivalent than in other countries, due to its experience of war, he added. “For us it has a lot to do with shame, with feelings of guilt and pain,” he said. “This is precisely what we wanted to convey.”

The two and a half hour film, largely made during the Covid lockdown with its muddy battle scenes filmed in the Czech Republic, is due for general release in German later this month.

It has been chosen as Germany’s entry for the foreign language Oscar.

When Lewis Milestone’s film was released in December 1930, it created a huge stir in Germany. Recognising its potential to stir anti-war feelings, Joseph Goebbels, the then Gauleiter, or regional leader of the Nazi party in Berlin, helped organise a protest at an art nouveau Berlin cinema in which members of the SA, the paramilitary wing of the party, were sent in civilian dress to start fights, throw stink bombs and release mice into the auditorium. Ticket counters were smashed and antisemitic tirades were directed at the film’s Jewish producers.

Future showings of the film took place under heavy police protection with many houses refusing to show it. Remarque’s novel was classified as degenerate by the Nazis and when they came to power in 1933 copies of the novels were publicly burned.


Kate Connolly

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
All Quiet on the Western Front review – anti-war nightmare of bloodshed and chaos
Teenage boys quickly find themselves caught up in the ordeal of trench warfare in this German-language adaptation of the first world war novel

Peter Bradshaw

12, Oct, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
All Quiet on the Western Front wins best international feature film Oscar
German-language war epic triumphs in the category for non-English language films

Andrew Pulver

13, Mar, 2023 @1:43 AM

Article image
Not so quiet on the western front | Letters
Letters: The new film sets up a myth in a way that would have delighted the National Socialists, writes Roger Macy, while Ian Ferguson thinks the remake adds nothing to the novel

03, Mar, 2023 @6:03 PM

Article image
Toronto 2015: Room adaptation doesn't directly reference Fritzl case, say film-makers
Although both Emma Donaghue’s novel and the well-received film adaptation recall the horrifying Fritzl case, the film-makers said they stayed away from the story in the making of the drama.

Nigel M Smith

15, Sep, 2015 @5:49 PM

Article image
German critics pan Oscar-nominated All Quiet On the Western Front
Critics accuse film of straying too far from Erich-Maria Remarque’s much-loved 1928 anti-war novel

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

27, Jan, 2023 @11:18 AM

Article image
All Quiet on the Western Front becomes instant bestseller – archive, 1929
Ninety years ago, a harrowing account of warfare in the first world war was brought to an international audience by German veteran Erich Maria Remarque

Richard Nelsson

06, Mar, 2019 @9:48 AM

Article image
Toronto film festival announces line-up with Mark Wahlberg drama premiering
Halle Berry’s directorial debut also on programme but whether physical screenings will take place remains up in the air

Andrew Pulver

30, Jul, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Tom Hiddleston proves he can sing in first clip from Hank Williams biopic
British actor releases footage of himself performing Move It on Over in I Saw the Light in advance of Toronto film festival premiere

Ben Child

11, Sep, 2015 @12:50 PM

Article image
Madame Bovary review: just go with the Flaubert - Toronto film festival
This swooningly grim adaptation is inessential but interesting viewing, not least for Mia Wasikowska’s fish-out-of-water heroine; a crabby valley girl in rural Normandy

Catherine Shoard

06, Sep, 2014 @5:34 PM

Article image
Will All Quiet on the Western Front really conquer all at the Baftas?
The German-language film has 14 nominations, and great resonance with the Ukraine war, but I suspect a good number of the gongs will go elsewhere

Peter Bradshaw

19, Jan, 2023 @1:22 PM