I often get in trouble for my stance on military life, and the automatic respect afforded to those in uniform who are enforcing the will of politicians and rich businessmen (soldiers and police, mainly). I do respect individuals who have made efforts to do their best for others in a role that sometimes asks them to forget that they are encountering other humans in their main interactions, but it's not automatically given. Just look at the state of the world right now - note, for future reference, we're currently just over a year on from Russia invading Ukraine and having us all worried that it will end with an act of absolute lunacy - and think of how different it would be if the bravest soldiers refused to act automatically on orders given to them. That might hurry things along to the use of long-range, even nuclear, weaponry, you might think. Yes, but think of how much braver someone needs to be to refuse a dictatorial maniac who wants someone helping him to launch missiles. I believe they would know that it would mean the end of their life, and every subsequent next person in line would need to be even braver, but doing the right thing is rarely the same as taking the easy option.
We see the best that soldiers can do when they help deliver emergency aid, when they present themselves as examples of the best and kindest kind of patriots. We don't see the best of them when they're in battle, particularly when that battle is due to the greed of one or two madmen who want to move borders and swallow up the assets of those they can overcome. Films have always struggled to show this, the dehumanisation of men that turns them into more effective fighting soldiers and the insanity and horror of throwing those who have barely reached adulthood into a mincer, meat to be slopped into the blood-soaked and hazy hellscape of a battlefield. Some have worked better than others, but it's almost impossible to make a war tale both cinematic and suitably condemnatory of the whole situation.
All Quiet On The Western Front (based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, and filmed a number of times before, although I have sadly neither read the source material or seen any other film version yet) gives it a better go than most. I was halfway through this 148-minute movie when I wondered if I could make it to the end. Not that the pace was dragging, nor was it weak in any department. I was finding it too difficult to watch. The constant mounting of horrors that couldn't be escaped, the cacophony of weaponry, the excruciating pain of the deaths (whether in the sheer volume or the individual moments showing how long it can take). It was all becoming unbearable, despite clearly being nowhere close to the experience of actually being a soldier put into those situations. In terms of reminding you of what it must take to be in the midst of battle, few films, if any, come close to making the same impact as All Quiet On The Western Front. And, yes, that includes the best war films you are already thinking of right now.
Viewers follow the journey of Paul (Felix Kammerer) as he signs up for an active role in the military, faking a signature to pretend that he has the permission of his parents. There are one or two moments of good cheer and camaraderie, and then the reality starts to sink in. Other characters come and go, and you might already suspect why that is, but Paul goes through a wide variety of wartime experiences: battling a physical enemy, battling hunger, and battling to hold on to his nerve as he has to force himself through one trauma after another.
Director Edward Berger, who also wrote the superb script with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, has delivered something here that I think might be as timely as it is flawless. It is not only deserving of all the praise it has been getting, it's worth more. This is another very strong contender for the best film of 2022, which means I have to slightly rearrange my list AGAIN, and I fear that I would just be searching for unnecessary adjectives trying to heap all of my praise upon it.
The script is structured well to show some main characters, to underline relevant moments, and to move between the fighting and the politics (Daniel Brühl playing the main character trying to negotiate peace with the French, realising that the German death toll makes the ongoing situation unsustainable). The camerawork and effects throughout are astonishing, putting viewers in the midst of the action without becoming too disorientating, or feeling too focused on the technical trickery of the shots and onscreen content. And the music by Volker Bertelmann . . . well, it's very possibly my favourite movie score from the past few years. Stunning stuff.
Kammerer is a great lead, especially for the jarring effect of his youthful appearance juxtaposed against what is being asked of him, but nobody in the cast does a bad job. I'll namecheck Albrecht Shuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Adrian Grünewald, Edin Hasanovic, and Brühl, but an effective depiction of wartime needs hundreds of people to show the soldiers being fed through the war machine, and this has a very lengthy cast list that I wish I could just copy and paste here.
War is hell. War is madness. War is used as the solution to problems that don't exist before madmen create them. And it's worrying that so many people keep forgetting the lessons that are right there in our history, not even ancient history. So it looks as if war is a mistake we are doomed to repeat for a long time to come, or until someone does the unthinkable. Before that happens, and apologies for not ending on a cheerier note, everyone should make time to watch All Quiet On The Western Front.
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