All Quiet on the Western Front – An Astounding Anti-war Epic

German director Edward Berger has adapted the famous 1929 novel of the same name by German solider and journalist Erich Maria Remarque, bringing to the screen the harrowing experiences of the German army fighting on the frontlines in World War I.

Berger is the third director to adapt Remarque’s novel and the first German director to do so. Moldovan-American director Lewis Milestone was behind the first adaption in 1930 and American director Delbert Mann was behind the 1979 adaption.

Edward Berger

This German world bestseller is able to convey the inhuman terror of war perhaps more impressively than any other literary work. For me, creating its first German film adaptation is one of the most exciting challenges of all.“ — Edward Berger

Edward Berger (JackPatrick Melrose) directed the film from a screenplay by Berger, Ian Stokell, and Lesley Paterson.

All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of a time period when mankind was getting to know the kind of destruction it was capable of doing. It tells the story of the infamous Armistice of Compiegne, where the Germans surrendered (unofficially) to the French in the year 1918. But “All Quiet on the Western Front” is not about war. It is not about patriotism. It is about the realization that a soldier goes through while he stands on the frontline and faces the bullets of the enemy forces. 

As 17-year-old German soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his comrades fight against the French on the Western Front, with catastrophic losses on both sides, behind trench lines, some powerful men were trying to put an end to the war.

Felix Kammerer and Albrecht Schuch. Copyright NETFLIX: Photo: Reiner Bajo

One of those men was Matthias Erzberger, a German writer and politician. In 1917, he became the authorized representative of the Reich government and signed the armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers, bringing an end to World War I on November 11, 1918.

In Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front on Netflix, German politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) plays a key role throughout the movie, a storyline missing from the original 1929 novel and the previous two adaptations.

Berger told Newsweek he felt it was “important” to include the Erzberger storyline from the very beginning of the movie to “foreshadow what was going to come next,” referring to the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939.

“First of all, the film is very much about contrasts to loud, quiet, peace, destruction, nature, luxury, mud, so [Erzberger] put a contrast to those endless battle scenes but more importantly, in terms of story, or in terms of what it means is that Remarque wrote this book in the 1920s, 100 years ago, and he didn’t have the perspective of the Second World War yet,” says Erzberger.

“I wrote it under the impression of the First and this was very present because it literally just happened, and he was in it and people remembered it and it was like current affairs and now we’ve forgotten a lot about it.”

In All Quiet on the Western Front, audiences watch as Erzberger fights to strike a peace deal with the Allied powers and is met with resistance. Chief Allied negotiator, Frenchman Marshal Ferdinand Foch, was unwilling to make any concessions to Germany.

Ultimately, on November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed.

Berger continued: “This moment in the train is a very important event in German history in terms of the Second World War because that character, Erzberger, he was basically picked on or sort of picked as a patsy by the military to sign this armistice because they didn’t want to admit that they were going to lose this. They basically, a week later, they started saying, ‘well, we would have won, politics betrayed us’ to save face.

“Four years later, Matthias Erzberger, Daniel Brühl’s character, was actually assassinated by nationalists. We included this storyline, to not really tell that story, but to hint at what was going to come next and that this was just the beginning of it and that’s a perspective that we now have, 70 years after or 80 years after World War II, but that Remarque didn’t have so I felt I had some license to include the outlook on the future, on the history.”

Copyright NETFLIX: Photo: Reiner Bajo

Director’s Note

The title is symbolic of the hypocrisy of the regime and the leaders, who once led their countries into one of the most devastating wars of our times. They said that it was “All Quiet on the Western Front.” As per the records, no one moved. As per the statistics, both sides didn’t lose out on much. As per the power wielders, everything was under control. But when everything was quiet on the western front, millions of soldiers fell prey to that silence. Millions of soldiers died while trying to feed the egos of men who were too self-absorbed to look beyond themselves.

Throughout our cinematic history, we have glorified war. But if you ask a soldier what was going inside his mind when he was on the frontline, he would create a kind of picture that would ruin your expectation and definitely the patriotism-soaked narrative that we see in most of our films. A soldier will tell you that there is no nobility in losing one’s life. There is no nobility in killing another man. Maybe a soldier, after a point of time, doesn’t even realize why he came there in the first place. The whole facade becomes a struggle to save one’s life and come out of it alive. Ask a soldier if he feels that he is victorious after his country has won a war, and you will get your answer. There might be a winner for those who sit comfortably on the sidelines and are fortunate enough to not have lost anyone in the war. The ones who are on the frontlines are made privy to that one eternal truth: there is no winner in a war.

When an individual witnesses a calamity such as World War 1, something very intrinsic inside him changes its shape and form. He is never the same person who once entered the battlefield feeling patriotic about his country and eagerly wanting to do anything and everything that his superiors commanded. He realizes that maybe he doesn’t want to be a part of such reckless hate. He realizes that maybe there was no such great cause that drove the leaders other than their own personal greed and agendas. He realizes that he has been fooled. Patriotism was but a ploy to deceive the people into believing that they needed to sacrifice their lives for the welfare of the country.

But the trenches of World War I didn’t lie to them. It told them that there was no such thing as the welfare of the country. Nobody cared about that, especially not the leaders. The General told his soldiers to make the last hours of war count and avenge the deaths of their brothers. It was an example of how humans are capable of living a lie and making it their reality. Whatever he and the other leaders spoke was a big lie, just like the title, “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Nothing was ever the same again on the western front. It was tainted with blood, cries, hopelessness, and everything else that millions of soldiers experienced in those last few moments of their lives. Grief changes you. Death makes you realize the true nature of life. You are made privy to your worst fears every single moment. Nothing remains the same. The world loses its luster, and you don’t know where to hide or how to lead your life after that.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a story about that deafening chaos and stands as a testimony to the fact that what happens when we are ruled by men who have a false sense of pride and personal worth.”