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Disquiet on the Western Front
The latest adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's World War I masterpiece arrives not in the aftermath of conflict, but in the middle of one
It’s common sense that any piece of art should be judged on its own merits, and not by the character of its detractors. But Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front was, for years, a target of rage for the ascendant Nazi Party in Germany, which is just one point in its favor. At the Berlin premiere of the 1930 film adaptation of the bestseller, Hitler loyalists under the personal direction of Joseph Goebbels released hundreds of white mice into the theater, shouting “Judenfilm!” And when the lights went on after the showing they simply beat the theatergoers and broke the projectors.
Since its publication almost a century ago, Remarque’s work has attracted artists to it again and again, inspiring multiple adaptations for the screen, and more for radio and the stage. Why does this story have the power to transcend decades and mediums and inspire such passion and such hatred? Perhaps the answer lies in the book’s first scene, a breathtakingly unsentimental introduction which surprises, even now, with the jagged hard edge of its cynicism. Our hero, nineteen-year-old German soldier Paul Bäumer, is happy, as he seldom is during his service on the front lines of World War I.
It is a rare day. Because of his company’s unexpectedly heavy rate of casualties in its final battle, only eighty of one hundred and fifty soldiers have returned from the front lines. The survivors eat the surplus rations, and are glad: “Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace. Each man has another mess-tin full for the evening; and, what is more, there is a double ration of sausage and bread. That puts a man in fine trim. We have not had such luck as this for a long time… To-day is wonderfully good.”
It’s a striking illustration of the brutal practicality of the frontline soldier, and it is the prelude to a book that foregrounds the fragile humanity among a group of soldiers, and the infernal war machine that seems determined to strip it from them entirely. Later we are to learn about the propaganda and the youthful idealism that drove Paul into combat; later, we will plunge into hell alongside him, and discover that his experiences have isolated him thoroughly from those he left behind. But it begins with beans cooked in fat, and sleep, and, wrenched from death’s jaws, “red poppies and good food, cigarettes and summer breeze.”
All Quiet on the Western Front has been adapted to film on three occasions, each arriving in unquiet times. The first film was released in 1930, in the simmering interim between the world wars; it opens on a postman who will become Bäumer’s despotic drill sergeant, delivering the mail, as marching young soldiers are heralded by brass bands and thrown flowers. The second is an excellent TV movie from 1979, four years after the Vietnam War ended, with a hardworking Ernest Borgnine and an array of angelic young Americans in period stahlhelms; here, we open in the trenches, although the marvelous day of the double rations is included.
The third—and the only German-language adaptation—is a Netflix production, and a leading contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar. (The 1930 adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Picture in its time, as well as Best Director.) This latest version is the most slickly shot, the most lushly produced—with the verisimilitude only ultramodern technology can provide—and it opens not on any man, but on the journey of a uniform from the corpse of a dead soldier to a garment factory to a warehouse to its new wearer: Bäumer, the naïve recruit.
Unlike its predecessors, 2022’s All Quiet arrived not in the aftermath of a war, but in the middle of one. So far this war has remained in the ravaged fields and villages and cities of Ukraine rather than spreading throughout Europe—but it involves much of the world by proxy, and hundreds of thousands of combatants on the front lines. The professional military men, volunteer vigilantes, and conscripts of the Russian invasion force have suffered rather more resistance than they were led to expect; like the young men who marched on Belgium over a century ago, they expected to be home by spring.
Erich Maria Remarque wrote from the perspective of a German fighting in France, an invader. The story of Bäumer’s rapid descent from the idealistic “iron youth” of his schoolboy days to jaded soldier hollowed by horror unfolds like a long plunge into dark water, guided by the author’s understated prose. There is scarcely an ideology—and certainly none so flimsy as an abstract love of the Fatherland—that could survive the long months of friends’ blood soaking into foreign soil. The death of one boy becomes a metonym for the death of an empire. Germany and its hopes of rapid and total conquest crumble in ignominy so great that Paul welcomes death when it arrives.
“I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear,” Paul tells the reader in his last address. A stranger ends the tale in third person: “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.”
In the aftermath of the armistice, a good portion of the fledgling Nazi Party was composed of the Freikorps—German soldiers who had fought in World War I and found themselves displaced after the armistice, dispatched by the Allies to fight Communists in the Baltics, men of enforced and then chosen brutality. The rest were students who had been too young for the fight, but were raised on tales of martial heroism, and wanted to gain—in street brawls and pogroms—their share of manly glory.
Then as now, violence begat more violence. A year into World War I, the infamous, labyrinthine ditches that became the homes and the graves of millions had largely settled into the geography they would maintain until the end of the war. The Western Front’s battles were fought over months, and over a few thousand meters at a time. The same villages were conquered and re-conquered by the armies of different nations until little was left but bullet-riddled walls, open to the rain.
Then, as now, Ukraine is positioned on Europe’s Eastern Front, a far more complex arena of conflict, one that moves and shifts around the totality of its Texas-sized landmass. The First World War ended there in 1918, when Lenin’s newly ascendant Bolsheviks signed the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to obtain peace for Russia at any price; the war had already toppled the Romanovs, and with them a centuries-old world order.
The horrors of Russian Revolution and Civil War were as bitter and as violent, as complex and as brutal, as the First World War, if not as far-reaching; those who had fought foreign enemies on the borders now shifted to fight at home, but the act of killing doesn’t change. Then as now, the boundaries of empire and imperial ambition underlay the conflict. But any direct analogy is imperfect. What Remarque’s novel captured is the way brutality chips away at a human soul, and renders it alien even to itself. So many young men and women are now imbibing that bitter draft, and it is this that Paul Bäumer has to offer: a condemnation of brutality, and a tale of loss after loss until everything you loved is gone.
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The book was banned, and then it was burned. Remarque fled the land he had bled for. The party apparatus put out that he was, secretly, a Jew. The notion that a soldier might waver before he died—might find his faith in the fatherland sapped by ceaseless loss—was an affront to the ideal of the Teutonic soldier, and it nearly cost Remarque his life. Even so, the remainder of his many novels explore displacement, and the lives of refugees, alien to their own countries, and to themselves. And All Quiet lives on, with an uncanny habit of resurrection in moments of disillusionment and peril. Its story of brutality, and how men become brutal in its grasp, has proven itself as timeless as violence itself.
The war in Ukraine has gone on for a year now and again men grind forward to kill one another through bullet-culled overgrowth and frozen earth. Then as now millions have fled their homes, and others have stayed to defend the motherland, and none are as whole or as joyful as they were a year ago. Just as World War I did, the current conflict has made a “meat-grinder in the woods,” as the Russian newspaper Meduza put it. Shell-pitted villages, aerial bombardments, mass rape, despoliation of land and of men—these are not things the world or Europe left behind in a prior decade or a previous century.
The German film, written and directed by Edward Berger, is a visual feast. Filth and viscera and explosions fly at you with grim intimacy, every detail considered. The faces of the young men are beautiful even when rendered grotesque by caked clay and battle madness. But the film eschews most of the novel’s human heart: gone is the postman-turned-tyrant Himmelstoss, and Paul’s visit home on leave, in which all that he has endured stands as firmly between himself and his family as any trench. That alienation is no small part of what Remarque meant when he dedicated the book to “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by war,” and it is a shameful omission.
As a novel, All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of physical destruction alongside the destruction of the more delicate and unseen psychic landscape of those who fight such a war. Even those who may have enlisted out of idealism, invaded another country believing themselves defending their fatherland, wind up riddled with physical and mental shrapnel. As a film, that psychological intimacy is subsumed under a sustained barrage of visual spectacle, and it falls prey to the great trap of all anti-war cinema: the auteurs love beauty, and the scenes of carnage are beautiful, the palette pitch-perfect and mesmerizing, and this shattering beauty does much to dispel any condemnation of conflict. In the hands of cinematographer James Friend, munitions-ravaged France is lovely as a moonscape. But that flinching-away from the soul of the novel—the film’s substitution of crude generalizations for the specific personalities of the characters—renders it a crude tool in a violent time, a shallow trench that cannot shelter thought.
The First World War was a cataclysm, a global wound that, even at its centennial, is imperfectly sutured. The world order then as now was multipolar, empires newly born and aged and dying all clashing at the edges. Hegemons collapsed; the seemingly eternal heaved and fell, and unthinkable entities were born. A year in, we cannot tell where this conflict will break the world, along what seams and fissures the cracks will show in a hundred years.
What is certain is that among the broken things will be the souls of people: the men who fight this war as instruments of empire, the ones who fight to defend their homes, the inhabitants and bystanders and mothers and spouses left behind. It is this element of annihilation that Remarque’s novel so masterfully observes, and that makes artists and readers alike return to it again and again. As long as war cuts open homes and bodies it will likewise tear at souls. And that bitter harvest, the fruit of empire and the great machines we make to kill each other, is reaped in sorrow and sown in violent recurrence.