All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) Netflix

In 1917, the third year of WWI, Germany continued to suffer heavy losses for meager gains on the battlefield.  Instead of admitting to the futility of the war effort, the army recruited younger and younger men to continue the push forward despite the growing allied counteroffensive.  Among the recruits is Paul (Felix Kammerer) and his schoolmates Albert (Aaron Hilmer), Frans (Mortiz Klaus) and Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald).  Rallied with notions of fighting for their country and for personal honor, they leave home believing that they’ll be marching in Paris in weeks.  Only when they arrive at the front do they realize the mistake they’ve made.  

The hell that was trench warfare is well documented.  Director Edward Berger presents the carnage with vivid, graphic clarity that’s shocking for its brutal honesty.  Paul’s first exposure to shelling nearly kills him but claims Albert.  During a prolonged break in the conflict he befriends older soldiers Kat and Taj, and they dare to dream about life after the war.  Far from the front lines, German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) tries to convince the German High Command to seek an armistice.  Unfortunately, pride outweighs the mounting casualties, and the fighting continues.  With each successive battle, Paul loses more of his friends.  Eventually, the fact that Germany cannot win the war takes hold, and Germany and France agree to an armistice.  Unfortunately, war is never over until it’s officially over, and Paul is sent to fight one last time minutes before the ceasefire so that a general can finally experience a military victory.

All Quiet on the Western Front shows with unflinching clarity how war is by turns horrifying, terrifying, depressing and ridiculous.  By telling a story from the perspective of the Germans fighting in the war, it shows how their sacrifices were devoid of honor and ultimately tragic.  The movie is one of the best made war movies I’ve ever seen, and also one of the most graphic.  The acting throughout is excellent, led by Kammerer in his first on screen performance.  The movie is gripping and devastating, one that backs up its anti-war sentiment with an unsparing assessment of those who lead men into war but suffer none of the consequences.  One of the best movies of 2022.  Highly Recommended.

Plot Summary

The opening four-minute sequence of All Quiet on the Western Front is nothing less than a tour de force.  Director Berger contrasts the beautiful stillness of nature with the battle taking place nearby.  After spending a moment appreciating a fog-laden forest and some foxes nestling, the scene shifts to a frozen countryside filled with corpses.  As the sounds of gunfire and shelling increases, the scene shifts to a military trench.  There, with chaos raining down from everywhere, a German captain urges his soldiers to attack, including one named Heinrich.  Terrified, he follows orders and he climbs out.  

As Heinrich runs towards the front line, soldiers are struck and killed by gunfire all around him.  When a shell explodes nearby, he takes cover and fires his rifle towards the front.  After he expends his rounds, he reaches inside his coat for a shovel.  Panic-stricken and hyperventilating, he runs ahead to where German soldiers are engaged with allied troops.  He confronts a French soldier and stabs him in the chest.

When the movie’s title card appeared, I realized that I had better steel myself for a movie that would depict the horrors of war with shocking realism and stunning gruesomeness over the next two plus hours.  Even though the subject matter of Front would make it a natural companion piece to 1917, the movie’s vivid depiction of battle sequences, large and small, make it more akin to Saving Private Ryan.  Both movies have an opening scene that delivers a devastating gut-punch, one that signals to the audience that what they will see from that point on will be unsparing in its graphic detail.

Before the movie takes us back to the front lines, it frames the events leading up to a group of young German recruits heading off to the war in dramatic irony so dark it would make the grim reaper laugh.  First we boots and uniforms off of piles of dead soldiers and collected in huge, bloody bags.  After they are washed and repaired they are given to recruits like Paul who, as a naive school boy, doesn’t realize that he was given the uniform of a dead soldier.   The comforting lie told by the recruiting officer is that it was intended for someone else, but it was too small.  (The real answer is much more grim.  The German Army is going through soldiers so quickly it doesn’t have the time or the money to make fresh uniforms.)

In place of the now-deceased Heinrich, Paul becomes our audience surrogate.  Unlike his friends, Albert, Franz and Ludwig, his father hasn’t signed his enlistment papers.  Unwilling to be left at home, he forges them so that he can fight alongside his friends.  They, as well as a significant number of their schoolmates, are filled with nationalistic fervor and see fighting in the war as the quickest way to personal glory.  (For Kaiser, God and Fatherland!)   They are told that they will march on Paris in a few weeks, which of course is a lie.  In another bit of irony, we know that these clean-cut schoolboys just traded their comfortable lives for a horrific experience that few of them will survive.

After their training, Paul and his friends receive harsh doses of reality almost immediately.  Their commanding officer says that where they are going is a shithole and they need to keep their rifles clean.  (How they could ever keep anything clean in an environment where they are constantly covered in mud is another cruel joke.)  First, the troops are forced to leave their transport 25 kilometers from the front so that the trucks can be used for soldiers dying in the mud.  Then, when a shell lands nearby, they are forced to don their gas masks.  When Paul takes too long, his commanding officer rebukes him and says that he’ll be dead by dawn.  (That line will have a particularly tragic resonance by the end of the movie.)  Finally, when they arrive at the front, he and his friends are asked to bail out the trench.  When Ludwig says that he can’t feel his hands anymore due to the cold, an older soldier nicknamed “Kat” tells them to stick their hands down their trousers to warm them up.  The young men realize that they were fooled into trading their good lives for a decidedly awful one, but there’s no turning back now.

The war arrives for Paul and his friends early the next morning.  A creeping barrage nearly kills Paul when the trench collapses.  After he’s excavated from the wreckage, Paul is tasked with retrieving the dog tags from the fallen soldiers.  He finds Albert’s corpse and cries over the loss of his friend.  The CO interrupts and tells him not to take all day to finish the job.  Back at the German High Command, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) tries to use the information from the dog tags to convince the Field Marshall and his officers to end the war due to the increasingly high body count.  Unfortunately, he’s unable to dissuade them because of the incredibly meager gains the army is making.  (One soldier quips that at the rate they are going, they’ll have France conquered in 180 years.)  

When the German army reaches occupied territory, the fighting stops and life for Paul and his friends becomes tolerable again.  The break in the action allows everyone to relax, bond and get into mischief.  Kat treats Paul, Franz, Leopold and newcomer Taj to an impromptu meal of boiled goose which he stole from French farmers.  Franz, who can speak French, spends an evening with some farmers’ daughters.  Taj talks about his dream of becoming an NCO and then a ranger, something Kat knows a Prussian can never become.  Kat cautions the others about dreaming of life after the war when peace hasn’t been announced.  Thinking ahead is a dangerous thing to indulge in, especially when they can die at any moment.

With the war at a standstill, Erzberger meets the French delegation to ask for an immediate ceasefire while both sides negotiate for peace.  Understandably, General Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montalembert) is in no mood for negotiations.  He gives Germany 72 hours to accept France’s terms for an armistice unconditionally.  Until they do, the fighting will continue.  German General Friedrichs is angry that bureaucrats are petitioning for peace.  He, however, will never accept surrender and orders the troops to head out.  When word reaches the front that a ceasefire has not been agreed to, the troops are ordered to attack.

The German soldiers experience heavy losses but eventually reach the French line.  Paul and his friends kill several French troops and appear to have taken the trench, but then the superior weaponry of the allies makes itself known.  Tanks, flamethrowers and fighter planes decimate the soldiers, and the Germans are forced to retreat.  Franz is separated from the rest and Albert dies horribly.  Paul stabs a French soldier, then is horrified over what he has done.  Time passes, and Paul first hears silence, then the sounds of birds.  A ceasefire has been obtained.

As has been the case throughout the movie, the war keeps taking everything from Paul until he has nothing left.  First he learns from Taj that Franz is dead.  Taj commits suicide instead of having his wounded leg amputated.  Finally, Kat dies after he and Paul steal eggs from the same farm they stole from earlier.  In one final act of insanity, General Friedrichs orders a final raid against the French with only minutes left before the armistice is officially recognized.  Paul once again reaches French territory, only to be stabbed just before fighting ceases.  

Analysis

What distinguishes Front from other war movies is that the events have a prevailing sense of futility and doom.   In movies like Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge, Dunkirk and 1917, the unspoken subtext is that in the end, the sacrifices made to defeat the enemy were worthwhile.  The injuries and deaths suffered by the soldiers on the side of righteousness were terrible, but they were ultimately necessary to defeat evil.  The audience willingly endures the experience because they can take comfort in the knowledge of the outcome, that good defeated evil.

Front, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of the German soldiers in WWI.  We already know that their side lost, so everything we see the German soldiers endure is for a lost cause.  Their sacrifice is all for naught.  The body count in Front is just as high as it is for the films I mentioned earlier, but every death we bear witness to is meaningless.  In this way, Front is very similar to a movie about the conflict in Vietnam, where every death is tragic because there will be no victory in the end.

In line with the movie’s fatalistic view is its complete lack of sentimentality.  War movies typically give the lead character (and the audience) something to hold onto, a small thread of hope amidst the overwhelming bleakness.  For example, Ryan had the mission to save the last brother of the family.  Or in Dunkirk, it was the desire to see Tommy and the rest of the stranded soldiers make it home.  In Front, the soldiers realize that they are fighting a war they cannot win.  As the closing credits state, soldiers on both sides fought over a few hundred meters of land for years at the cost of millions of lives.  The knowledge that the US is sending 200,000 a day adds an air of inevitability at the command level.  On the actual battlefield, the German soldiers see that they are outgunned, at one point facing off against tanks and allied troops with flamethrowers.  All Germany can do is send younger and younger men to fight, leading one soldier to remark that by the end of the war, his country will be empty.

Front makes its most damning statements against war when the armistice is announced.  While soldiers like Paul and Kat can envision going home, they don’t see how they can simply go back to the lives they had before.  The things they’ve experienced will always be with them, no matter what happens.  Deep down, I believe that neither of them actually believed they would make it home again, even with the ceasefire in place.  This unfortunately turns out to be true.

The movie then shows the utter ridiculousness of war when General Friedrichs, hungering for a military victory that has eluded him his entire life, announces one last charge against the allies.  While the French troops relax, the German troops attack with only fifteen minutes remaining before the armistice officially takes effect.  I was surprised to learn that while Friedrichs was a fictional character, the movie dramatized what actually took place at the end of the war.  Generals on both sides initiated battles in the hours leading up to the armistice for several inexplicable reasons, including the notion that these actions would give soldiers a final victory to talk about.  There was also the practical matter of ensuring that border lines would shift in the desired direction for one side or the other before the fighting ended.  Either way, the actions of Friedrichs gave the final events of the film a harsh, satirical edge I haven’t seen since Paths of Glory.

Three Worlds

Front uses three distinct worlds to symbolize the changes in Paul’s life: the civilized world, the combat world and the natural world.  The civilized world is what Paul leaves behind to join the war.  It’s a world of refinement and beauty, where everyone wears clean clothes, eats good food and generally enjoys life.  This world contains Paul’s school, his friends, home, family and community.  This is also where the German men who are directing and overseeing the war reside.  They make decisions from ornate offices and plush railway cars, far removed from the harsh reality of the combat world.

The combat world is where all of the fighting takes place.  It’s a world of chaos, filled with rain, mud, blood, explosions and death.  The movie frequently switches between the two worlds to emphasize how much Paul unknowingly gave up in the pursuit of glory, for himself and also for his country.  The contrast between the civilized world and the combat world also highlights the huge disparity in how the soldiers and the generals experience the war.  Paul and the other soldiers are at risk dying at any given moment, in ways that range from quick and painless to excruciating.  The generals, however, never get their hands dirty and are unmoved by the large death toll.

The natural world is the place of the forest, foxes, sunrises and farmers.  While it is not refined and cultured as the civilized world, it is calm, beautiful and peaceful.  The natural world offers respite to Paul and his comrades-in-arms from the battlefield, similar to taking a vacation.  Unlike the civilized world and the combat world, the natural world will exist largely unchanged after the war is over, regardless of the outcome.

The Horror

While watching Front, my brain kept telling me that I was actually watching a horror movie.  I realize that all war movies are horror movies in varying degrees, but the way Front tells its story feels different.  The sequence where the uniforms from dead soldiers are gathered, washed and repaired had the same charnel house atmosphere of a movie like Hostel.  The way the camera lingered on the bodies of dead soldiers laying in the mud, hanging from barbed wire or dangling from a tree reminded me of survivors finding victims in slasher movies.  The scene where Paul found the missing sixty soldiers looked like a mass suicide. The way the battle sequences are filled with gore and blood was very reminiscent of zombie movies, or films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The way the tanks emerged from the smoke like monsters.  Then there’s the four minute sequence when Paul is tortured by the gurgling noises of the French soldier he tried to stab to death.  Fortunately, Paul is shocked at what he’s done as a soldier, but he’s really no different than Jason or Michael Myers.  Finally, the soundtrack frequently plays jarring music before a battle scene, very similar to how a horror movie uses musical cues to heighten the tension before a character is confronted by a monster or a killer.  

Graphic Detail

Berger and DP James Friend’s decision to film nearly all of the action in deep focus was a daring choice.  Unlike other war movies that obscure the carnage with a washed-out palate, hand-held cameras and rapid editing techniques, Front shows the results of the violence with perfect clarity and in full color.  Gunshot wounds are depicted as bloody, gaping holes.  Exploding shells rain mud down upon the soldiers, who are thrown into the air from the blast.  As the battle rages, the soundtrack is filled with the sounds of gunfire and screaming.  

The movie also makes an extraordinary effort to render the fighting in no man’s land as accurately as possible.  Those scenes often include long shots that depict the area as an endless stretch of craters, water, mud and barbed wire.  When the fighting commences, the movie shows hundreds of soldiers running across and fighting within the desolate area.  I’ve seen many movies where large-scale battle scenes were faked with CGI, so I was stunned at how real everything looked.  (I have no idea if CGI was actually used or not.)

Another example of how dedicated Berger was to rendering the war experience in graphic detail was his decision to show how awful it is for someone to die from hand-to-hand combat.  After Paul stabs a French soldier six times in the chest, he is forced to witness his death throws for an excruciating four minutes.  Also, at the end of the movie, Paul lives for a minute or two after being stabbed in the chest–just long enough so that he can bear witness to the ceasefire.  I’ve grown accustomed to seeing people die immediately after being  stabbed only once, which is a lie that movies and television frequently perpetuate.

Honor

As I mentioned above, since the outcome of WWI is a historical fact, the actions of the soldiers in Front are all for naught.  Every German character’s death is futile and pointless because it will have been to achieve victory.  This puts Front in the same category as Downfall and Letters From Iwo Jima as movies that depict war from the losing side.  Like those movies, Front tries to garner sympathy for those who gave their lives in the name of evil.  Front makes its case by stating that soldiers like Paul were led to believe that their cause was righteous.  They didn’t have the perspective of history that we do.  They fought and died for their country not knowing that they were the villains in the story.

Like his fellow soldiers, Paul also believed that what he was doing was right.  What makes his story even more tragic was that he never had to fight and die in the war to begin with.  He actually was goaded into joining when his mother told him that he wouldn’t last a day in the army.  (That his CO echos this assessment only steals his resolve.)  Instead, much to Paul’s surprise, he lasted almost two years in the war and died in its closing minutes.  Unfortunately, just like Erzberger’s son, there is no honor in his death, only tragedy.

In Front of the Camera

The only actor I recognized was Daniel Brühl, who I know as Baron Zemo from the Marvel movies.  He, like everyone else in Front, is excellent.  The movie features the best ensemble acting I’ve seen this year.  Just like George MacKay in 1917, Felix Kammerer carries the movie as Paul.  Unlike MacKay, Front was Kammerer’s first onscreen appearance.  It’s an incredible debut, showing a remarkable range.  I suspect he will break out in a big way after this movie.

Behind the Camera

As I’ve mentioned above, director Edward Berger does an exceptional job here.  Before I looked him up on IMDB, I didn’t realize that he also directed all episodes of the Patrick Melrose limited series.  When I place both of them side-by-side, I see how unflinchingly he confronts difficult or troubling material directly.  He also has a gift for getting emotionally honest performances from his actors.  (I think Cumberbatch’s performance in Melrose is his best by far.)  I predict that every project he works on after this movie will be prefaced with “From the Director of All Quiet on the Western Front”, and rightfully so.

Berger, along with fellow screenwriters Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, deserve high praise for adapting Erich Maria Remarque’s novel.  Before seeing this movie, I didn’t know that the previous film adaptations from 1930 and 1979 (for television) were both American productions.  From what I’ve read, Berger added the Erzberger character and the scenes where he seeks an armistice.  From a narrative perspective, these helped tremendously to explain the actions being taken in the background to save the lives of Paul and the rest of the soldiers.  Berger also added the General Friedrichs character, to represent the folly of generals on both sides at the very end of the war.  

The rest of the crew also does top-drawer work here.  I’ve singled out DP James Friend above for his stunning camera work.  Sven Budelmann’s Editing is equally masterful, as is the production design, art direction, set decoration and costumes.  While I haven’t seen most of this year’s potential awards contenders, Front is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  If the Academy does not nominate it for either Best Picture or Best International Feature, I would be shocked.  It’s unfortunate that people will only be able to see this movie at home.  It deserves to be seen on a big screen in a theater.

Last but not least, Volker Bertelmann’s score was incredible.  The typically heroic and majestic symphonics typical of war movies are nowhere to be found.  Instead, Bertelmann’s compositions, evoking feelings of discomfort, terror and mournfulness, border on avant garde.  Like the characters in the story, it keeps the audience on edge throughout.  It will probably be ignored for awards because it isn’t beautiful or pretty like most film scores, which would be disappointing.

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