Capturing the world’s attention when it was published in 1928, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is one of the best-known novels of the 20th century. Initially a German work written by author Erich Maria Remarque, it was translated into several languages and quickly became a bestseller across the West.
It is a profoundly human tale that deals with the war’s brutality while individualizing those whom history would view as mere casualty numbers on a battlefield. The bluntness of the novel’s depiction of war was eye-opening for many who did not suffer in the trenches and provided a sense of understanding for those who did. The work’s controversial anti-war message was subtle but is found throughout. It made its point not through clumsily direct dialogue but by crafting characters who, through their stories, showed the futility and destruction of the conflict in which they were engaged.
What made the novel so special was its character development, which compounded the moral stakes and humanized a war that so painfully dehumanized its combatants. It was essentially a classic coming-of-age story that followed its protagonist Paul Bäumer from his naïve schoolboy days in 1914 through his transformation during the war into a disillusioned veteran. This focus allowed Remarque to fully capture the war, from the home front to the trenches, from boredom to action, and from horror to camaraderie.
Now, nearly a century after the book’s publication, Netflix has produced a cinematic adaptation of the timeless story. The film, directed by Edward Berger, has received largely positive reviews and is likely to be nominated for multiple Oscars. But unfortunately, it fails to live up to its namesake by poorly adapting the story, underdeveloping characters, and adding scenes that only serve to hammer home the unsubtle anti-war message.
There are plenty of positives about the new “All Quiet on the Western Front,” especially if you have no knowledge of the source material. The cinematography is spectacular, with beautifully haunting shots of “no man’s land” and eerily scenic landscapes. The costuming and weapons are period-accurate. And the images of men being blown apart by artillery shells, cut down by machine gun fire, and killed in hand-to-hand combat in trenches depict the reality of World War I combat for modern audiences in a compelling way. The film’s casting and acting are also quite good and are accentuated by watching the film in its original German.
However, these positive attributes are overwhelmed by their negative counterparts. With respect to the story, characterization, and overall message, this film deviates significantly from its source material. It adopts the outward trappings of the book — character names, certain scenes, and a general anti-war message — while missing the underlying substance that made the original so unique.
Below are mild spoilers for both the book and film.
One of the most notable aspects of the book is seeing Paul’s experience with war change from the heady days of fall 1914, when everyone was convinced the war would end by Christmas and youngsters joined up in an ecstasy of patriotic fervor, to summer 1918, with the home front collapsing and veterans in the trenches enmeshed in a cynical and hopeless cycle. Paul’s psychic transformation from excited schoolboy to grizzled soldier — and the toll it took on his personality and life outlook — is the entire point of the book.
By making Paul join up in 1917, the new film seriously undermines this critical factor. Not only that, but it makes the work less historically accurate. Those joining in 1914 would’ve genuinely experienced that eruption of patriotism that did exist at the time, while those recruited after three years of grueling warfare would have no such illusions. The film takes that 1914 attitude and transmutes it to 1917 without any understanding of how society’s feelings about the conflict dramatically changed in that period.
The book creates sympathetic characters and explores their interpersonal relationships, making their eventual deaths more meaningful and morally profound. The lack of such care in the new film leads to significant emotional moments feeling stunted and meaningless. This choice may fit into the movie’s strident message of war as fundamentally futile, but this misses the point of Remarque’s story. The book was meant to show the war as destructive and morally compromised but also to show those who sacrificed during it as humans worthy of individual consideration and mourning. This film’s story makes these sacrifices far less meaningful than they ought to be, treating characters as near-interchangeable and losing their unique personalities in the process.
Remarque’s message of the common humanity of the soldiers on all sides of the conflict is touched on in this adaptation but misses the mark when compared to the source material. In a famous scene where Paul kills his first Frenchman in hand-to-hand combat and is forced to lie with him in a shell crater overnight while he dies, Remarque movingly details Paul’s racing thoughts and his new understanding of his nation’s purported enemy as no different from himself. This scene is the moral heart of the book.
In the 2022 version, it is shortened and condensed, damaging the ultimate message and Paul’s personal evolution. The scene is so weighty in the book because it is the first time Paul kills a man so directly. In the film, Paul stabs multiple Frenchmen with bayonets just minutes earlier, draining this death of its moral heft. Viewers are left to ask a question that remains unanswered: What makes this killing so different?
The condensing or elimination of vital scenes harms the film’s character-building. For instance, the most crucial relationship — between Paul and his mentor Kat — is not set up at all. Kat is introduced very quickly and, within no time at all, he and Paul are shown as close friends. The lack of setup makes this critical relationship feel unconvincing, if not forced. Another example comes when one of Paul’s school friends is killed in an artillery attack; we see Paul’s anguish at his friend’s death, but the audience has built no relationship with the deceased character, hence lessening the death’s significance.
In place of these character-building scenes are more battle sequences and a subplot revolving around the armistice negotiations. The scenes of political and military leaders negotiating are interesting on their own but seem to come from an entirely different movie. This subplot — and the unsubtle ham-fisted dialogue therein — seems designed purely to beat the film’s moral message into the audience’s head. Taking the focus away from Paul and his comrades only makes their story seem less important; the refusal to do this in Remarque’s original transfers society’s emphasis on broad events to the discrete individual, bringing the war into focus as a human story and not a political one.
It’s truly a shame that something that would stand on its own as a good WWI film chose to attach itself to Remarque’s legacy. Besides character names, a few specific scenes, and the basic outlines of a message, the 2022 adaptation has almost nothing to do with the source material — and sometimes makes the opposite point entirely.
Instead of crafting a novel anti-war war film, the minds behind this project felt the need to bring in an established property. The failure to bring Remarque’s moving story of conflict and camaraderie to a new generation diminishes what would otherwise be a quality movie. Regrettably, 2022’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a pale imitation of the original.