All Quiet On The Western Front Review: A Bleak, Beautiful, Anti-War Film [TIFF]

War is a horrific, futile waste of human life. This is the basic message of Edward Berger's "All Quiet on the Western Front," a war film based on the 1928 German novel of the same name. The film, which had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, is a powerful condemnation of warfare, presenting audiences with a grueling, wretched depiction of the physical, financial, and psychological toll that The Great War had on the German people. Rather than portray its characters as glorious heroes bravely fighting for their country, or even ending the film on an optimistic note, "All Quiet on the Western Front" is tragic from beginning to end, and is relentlessly, almost unbearably, bleak. 

That's the point. It's the ultimate anti-war war film.   

The original novel, written by Erich Maria Remarque, was a huge hit internationally. It was adapted by universal in 1930 for the highly acclaimed war epic "All Quiet on the Western Front." Berger's film follows the same basic beats as the pre-code film, but is updated for contemporary audiences with awe-inspiring visuals, a haunting, industrial score, and much, much more violence. This is not a film for the weak of heart: Just watching the intense bloodshed and suffering playing out on the big screen is enough to give anyone nightmares. What's even more distressing, though, is remembering how many people actually lived through that. For however grueling the characters' plight appears, most of us will never fully understand what life in the trenches was actually like. 

A harrowing look at WWI

Berger's film is masterfully shot and paced, offering crisp, evocative World War I images. Although we've had some really impressive features on the topic in recent years, including Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" (2011) and Sam Mendes' one-shot film "1917" (2019), "All Quiet on the Western Front" feels revolutionary. This may be partially because we're getting the German perspective of events; it feels like most Hollywood war blockbusters ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Thing Red Line," "Dunkirk," etc.) are set during World War II and position the Americans and the Allies as the heroes against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. "All Quiet on the Western Front" goes back to that first world conflict, and honestly presents the circumstances that led Germany's youth to want to fight in the war and the disastrous repercussions. 

I think a bigger factor, however, is Berger's sharp eye for dramatizing events — both the epic, large-scale battle scenes, and also the quiet, private moments in between. "All Quiet on the Western Front" really puts the audience in the action. The story focuses on one soldier, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), who lies about his age to excitedly enlist alongside his chums. These young men — practically boys — are actually happy to go to war, joking and singing on their way to train. The generation has been brainwashed by propaganda and authority figures to see the front lines as an opportunity for glory and excitement — they're fighting for their fatherland, but they're also seeking out adventure. But we, the audience, already know better. 

Rather than start the film with Paul, Berger instead opens with a montage that demonstrates the endless, faceless cycle of death that leads up to Paul entering the war. In those opening scenes, unimaginable numbers of young men are slaughtered on the battlefield. Their corpses are recovered en masse, and diligent workers reclaim what equipment is salvageable. Then it's an industrial assembly line of washing, repairing, and repackaging the uniforms for the next batch of eager young recruits. It's the same kind of industrial meat-grinder view of warfare that Roger Waters is singing about on "The Wall," and it's one that doesn't often get included in these kinds of movies. When Paul gets his uniform, he notes that it already has a name tag on it. He's told it was returned because it was "too small" and that this happens all the time. We know the truth is much darker: Someone died in that jacket. 

Another brick in the wall

It's very clear in "All Quiet on the Western Front" that the powers that be (the "fat pigs" as the soldiers call them) don't care about their soldiers — they care about appearances and pride. The closest thing to a villain in this film is a general (played by Devid Striesow) who will not admit defeat. He sends his boys out to die for no other reason than his apparent misguided belief that it is more "honorable" to die in battle than to starve in retreat — but he, of course, will remain behind, plotting the next move from the comfort and safety of his base of operations. 

Berger emphasizes the disparity between the wealthy elite who are dictating the war, and the young boys being used as cannon fodder, with visual cues. Juxtaposed with the hazy, blue-tinted desaturated scenes of Paul on the front lines — where the cold reality of imminent death is ever-present — are warm, lush offices and railway cars, where men dressed in vibrant colors enjoy hot coffee, fresh pastries, and fine wine — all while lounging by crackling, welcoming fires. It's a subtle effect that offers a mature, nuanced perspective on the politics and priorities at the time. What the general actually says isn't really what's important: What matters is that he's in a position of luxury while his people — many of whom are under the age of 18 — are suffering in squalor. It's not the message of his words but the message of his actions that counts. 

Paul's coming-of-age journey in "All Quiet on the Western Front" is a tragic, haunting narrative. There's no happy ending: when Paul's story is over, another soldier steps into place. Whenever one boy dies, another, younger new recruit arrives to continue the cycle. The Armistice stopped the fighting, but — as hinted at in Berger's film — the conditions contributed to a politically unstable Germany, which set the stage for the Nazi party take-over and the subsequent outbreak of World War II. The next generation of soldiers is constantly fed into the system — whether it be over months, years, or decades — corrupted by fallacious ideology and nationalist pride, only to be used, abused, and then destroyed. This is not a problem we've overcome as a society — look at the disturbing rise of terrorist groups, white nationalists, and even neo-Nazis over just the last decade. "All Quiet on the Western Front" wants us to be aware of this absolute, horrifying truth — that we are all, still, just bricks in the wall — so that one day, just maybe, we can find a way to end the cycle for good. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10