Remaking a classic brings with it certain responsibilities. Chief among them is honoring and staying true to the source material. Some creative license is allowed, sure — even expected. A director ought to make a mark, offer a new angle, or utilize certain technical capabilities not available to an earlier version.
Recently added to Netflix after a run in select theaters and based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel about World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) who joins the German army after a nationalistic professor inspires many of his peers to head to the front to fight. They quickly realize, however, that this thin veneer of patriotic sheen melts away quickly amid the horrors of war.
Director Edward Berger captures this central message of Remarque’s novel: that war isn’t jubilant, something to be celebrated. The film depicts the dreaded periods of waiting, wondering what they’re fighting for and whether they’ll ever make it home. Paul transforms as the movie progresses, becoming more hopeless as the violence intensifies. The waits are punctuated with short bursts of combat. The scene where Paul kills a French soldier in hand-to-hand combat and immediately breaks down is perhaps the most powerful in the film. All the while, Volker Bertelmann’s ominous score, with a repeated three-note droning riff, offers the perfect backdrop to these horrific scenes.
All Quiet on the Western Front ending explained
Berger handled much of the source material masterfully, but he bizarrely goes beyond these initial parameters. Separate from Paul’s first-person narrative — the central thread of the book — Berger adds a German delegation trying to negotiate a ceasefire with French leaders. This is nowhere in the book or previous versions of the film. Daniel Brühl plays Matthias Erzberger who pleas with the French to end the war, agreeing to end hostilities on Nov. 11. The plot lines converge when a German general orders the troops (which includes a dejected Paul) to launch one final counterattack in the minutes before the armistice time. In this version of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul inflicts a few final acts of vengeance, but is killed seconds before peace.
Why Berger added this unnecessary tangent is anyone’s guess. Maybe it creates an artificial clock for Paul to unknowingly race. But it’s the lack of knowledge, the lowly solider left in the dark about grander political machinations that make All Quiet on the Western Front the force it is. To add this feels artificial. The audience would’ve been better served to remain in the dark about an armistice, just as Paul lacks all hope for peace.
Worse yet, the final scene is so wholly antithetical to the very title of the novel. In the end of Remarque’s work, Paul is killed a month before the end of the war, at a time of relative peace on the line. At the same time, a message is transmitted — “All quiet on the western front” — as if to indicate the meaninglessness of Paul’s death, just one death among many. Berger’s 2022 deviation might better be titled “Chaos on the Western Front.” Nevertheless, Berger’s film brings strong acting performances and stunning visuals, and though the story deviates, the same underlying anti-war message permeates throughout.
Watch All Quiet on the Western Front on Netflix.