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A Masterpiece of German Realism

Netflix’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is a reminder that no one wins a great power war.

Benedict Cumberbatch Hosts a Special Screening of 'All Quiet on the Western Front'

"This is not how I expected it to be," cries a shivering 17-year-old on his first experience of trench warfare on his first day in the front. The new German entry to the Oscars is the adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front now available on Netflix and is a masterpiece of German realism. 

Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 book is a classic about the futility of a great power war, so much so that it got banned by the Nazis. The movie stays remarkably close to the original's sentiment. The book and the movie start with the early days of the Great War, the last feudal war where rules of civility and honor were still followed. A bunch of 17-year-old schoolboys cheer their Prussian history teacher who charges them with defending Kaiser, God, and fatherland, and they head off to a man-made horror far beyond their dim-witted comprehension. 

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The story follows a boy named Paul Baumer, a university aspirant, who was about to follow the middle class footsteps into the imperial bureaucracy of a country that once gave birth to Goethe and Schiller. The only private moments on the front are when a man makes peace with his God. In an uncomfortably long scene, Paul is stuck in a shallow puddle in the No Man’s Land with a French kid whom he stabs seven times, shredding his lungs. But men are hard to kill, and the French soldier lies there coughing blood with accusing eyes looking at an increasingly devastated Paul, who realizes that the other man is just a son or a brother. The camera zooms in on Paul’s mud-caked, gaunt, animalistic face, noticing the changes in expression from sheer terror, to grief, to incomprehension, to utter remorse, and finally to broken existential bleakness. 

There are changes to the novel. Some deaths are different than the book, and one cannot mention them here without spoiling the story. The director claimed he wants to highlight the dangers of rising nationalism, by reimagining a classic, and it is understandable that a German would be reluctant to embrace any form of nationalism, no matter how benevolent. But recent wars, from Iraq to Libya, were not brought about by competing nationalisms, but rather by egalitarian idealism. Even now, the “right-wing nationalists,” whether in America or Hungary or Britain, are opposed to further exacerbating the war in Ukraine, and anti-war conservatives are readily called fascists by the liberal elite and internationalist cognoscenti. 

There is a scene at the end in which Germans charge the lines mere hours from ceasefire, roused by a comical archetype of the right-wing conservative Prussian general. No such thing happened, in the book or in real life. By the end of the war, with the Americans pouring in by the tens of thousands, the balance of terror was already lost and the German lines were mostly in open rebellion. There was sporadic artillery warfare, not mass trench invasion and infantry movements. 

In fact, Paul’s death in the book is so deliberately underwhelming as to be almost banal, as it shows the futility of it all, how the cream of Europe—poets, scholars, musicians—were thrown in the fire by their political elites. Remarque wrote:

He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.

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Remarque would be horrified at the effort to dilute and translate his generic anti-war sentiment to fit a political statement of our times. It is the statement of lost generations, one that would sound instinctively true today to the thousands who were mutilated in experiments in the Middle East and Afghanistan, thrown to the pits by social-engineering elites. 

The Europe of Byron, Chopin, and Aivazovsky was a civilized place. During the first year of the war, soldiers from both sides played soccer on Christmas and exchanged cakes. British nurses treated German war wounded. German pastors gave last rites to the French dead. And then all hell broke loose. 

A beautiful civilization, after decades of great power peace, in a fit of elite madness, public ennui, and Edwardian idealism, committed suicide in a fratricidal war that ended four different empires and killed 17 million of Euro-America’s best. A better way of life was lost forever to modernity’s horrors, the sheer terror of which are seen in Paul’s eyes when his infantry forward force encounters tanks for the first time, a terrifying hulk of fire-breathing steel impervious to swords, machine guns, and heroism. The result is 15 minutes screentime of utterly mindless butchery ending with French soldiers burning German wounded alive with flame throwers, as if in an act of mercy. The music score as Paul eats dinner after the incomprehensible savagery is augmented by a haunting, industrial-style triad slowly giving way to Bach’s “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.” 

As Remarque wrote in his book, the story is neither an accusation nor a confession. It is just an attempt to account for a generation destroyed by the conflict, “even those who survived the shelling.” Civilization is fragile, and no one wins a great power war. 

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