By Owen Glancy
By Jack McLaughlin
The novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” is an all-time classic, and one of the greatest war stories ever told. The brutal and nihilistic viewpoint of a German soldier during World War I is captivating and memorable.
We’re happy to say this year’s film adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (or “Im Westen nictus Neus” in German) is an excellent adaptation of the classic novel.
It’s important to mention the film is a German production, meaning watching it in the original German language is obviously ideal. The English performances aren’t bad, but they don’t have the same energy as the original German version.
Immediately upon starting the film, the immaculate use of lighting is made apparently clear. Bombs and flares lighting up the night sky, the sunlight peeking through the canopy of evergreen trees, and the dim infirmaries lit by torches all create an overwhelmingly depressing mood.
The cinematography is also excellent. The war scenes are expertly shot in a way that will grab the viewer’s attention and refuse to let go, forcing the horrors of war to be seen by the audience up close.
The long tracking shots through chaotic battle scenes are incredibly impressive and visceral. Surprisingly, the film has little violence. Any gory scenes are mild compared to the film’s contemporaries, but what is shown is realistic and disturbing.
Seeing blood hit the camera as a man is killed by a shovel or hearing screams of agony as a man’s leg is amputated are incredibly effective at shaking the audience to their core.
While there aren’t as many moments of action normally expected in traditional war movies, the ones that are here are fantastically done.
A standout action scene is when tanks are introduced to the battle. The tense energy that fills each of the characters as they slowly begin to realize what is coming toward them is some of the best action viewers will see all year.
The many failed attempts to stop the tanks fill the scene with even more dread, and once it’s over, viewers will not only be relieved but left in horror at the carnage they just witnessed.
All this violence and mood are useless if the characters aren’t interesting. Thankfully, the film’s protagonists Paul and Kat are incredibly charming and relatable.
Paul starts the film as an innocent optimist who joins the war with his friends to win glory for the fatherland. As the film marches through its admittedly far too long runtime, Paul gradually becomes a jaded machine for combat.
Despite Paul’s excellent character arc, Albrecht Schuch’s performance as Kat is unforgettable. He plays the role of a wise and resourceful mentor well, standing out from the rest of the already great cast.
The story focuses less on the war, rather using it as a backdrop to show the struggle of Paul experiencing this life-altering event. This use of screen time to focus primarily on Paul allows him to grow as a character the viewer will genuinely care for.
This works for viewers who aren’t entirely engaged in traditional war movies, and offers an alternative that ends up being one of the best entries this genre has seen in a long time.
One notable scene that shows this is when Paul is reading Kat’s letter to him that was sent by his wife. This moment of brevity allows the story to slow down and strengthen the bonds of these characters.
Had the film not taken the time to let these characters grow, viewers would not be nearly as interested in their own personal dilemmas.
The best scene in the film takes everything previously mentioned and combines them in a perfectly gut-wrenching moment. About halfway through the film, Paul is fleeing from the French line after a failed attempt to capture it.
He hides in a water-filled crater where he is attacked by a French soldier. Paul fatally stabs the soldier and fills his mouth with dirt. This brutal violence is framed brilliantly, and the delivery from both actors really sells the pain of taking a life and losing it.
We then see Paul continue to hide in the crater with the enemy soldier slowly dying nearby. Eventually, Paul’s conscience takes hold of him, and he realizes that the enemy he’s been fighting this whole time is a person.
Paul tries to save his life, applying pressure to the wounds and removing the dirt from his mouth. You can really feel his manic desperation and regret as he tries everything in his power to save the man’s life.
The man cannot be saved however, as he dies in Paul’s arms. Paul then goes into the man’s jacket to find a picture of a wife and child. He vows to bring the man’s possessions back to his family as he sits in the crater contemplating his decisions as the sun sets. It’s truly a brilliant scene.
Not everything in the film is perfect however. Many of the side characters are very one note and their deaths are obvious and often downplayed.
The score, composed by Volker Bertelmann, left a lot to be desired. Many of the songs in the soundtrack sound as though they’re pulled from a modern action movie. This unfortunately distracts from the World War I setting and can be an off-putting experience.
A repetition of four notes is also sprinkled throughout many scenes here. The constant use of them is once again distracting and it overall led to a rather disappointing soundtrack in an otherwise great story.
The four-note melody is used so often, that even the lighter scenes of brevity in the film cannot escape them. This causes scenes that would have been a good break from intense action to have a strange sense of dread, occasionally ruining the film’s otherwise well established tone.
As mentioned before, the film can feel lengthy at points. This causes some parts to feel slow and boring, especially when Paul or Kat aren’t in a scene.
The original novel focused entirely on Paul and his unit; however, the film regularly switches to the perspective of higher-ranking generals and the Kaiser. While these scenes aren’t bad on paper, they take the viewer out of what is supposed to be a very personal and relatable story.
It feels as if these scenes were added to make the story more digestible to a casual viewer, but they come off as bland and pointless and bring the story of our main characters to a grinding halt each time it cuts to them.
The addition of these scenes stretches the runtime close to two and a half hours, which, in a way, kills the momentum of the story.
The omission of the novel’s central theme of the German lost generation also feels strange, but it’s hard to notice if you haven’t read the original source material.
Overall, the film is a masterful adaptation of one of the greatest novels of all time. The immaculate mood, writing, and acting make for a brutal and memorable story of loss and violence.
Despite the long runtime and strange changes to the original story, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is an excellent film and absolutely worth the inevitable tears it’s sure to cause.
B+: a subtly brutal modern gem