June 10, 2023

An important part of the continued German effort to not let people forget the atrocities of the past, the gravest of which were orchestrated by their own compatriots, the latest adaptation of the classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front is also the best. Fittingly bleak, painfully ironic, and epic to behold, the film premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival after being selected as Germany’s official entry to the Oscars, but Netflix should have ideally screened it for heads of state at the United Nations instead.

You and I can watch all 147 minutes of it and come away knowing what we already know, that war is futile, and evil so banal that it sometimes becomes indistinguishable from behaviour that we consider to be acceptable. Films like this are the equivalent of social media echo chambers, and that’s tragic. Whether or not All Quiet on the Western Front is able to appeal to the morality of some decision-making babu is unlikely, but at the very least, it could strengthen one’s resolve against tyranny of any kind.

Felix Kammerer stars as the young soldier Paul Bäumer, whom we first meet as a 17-year-old infatuated with the idea of fighting for his country, three years into World War I. Along with his buddies, Paul enlists in the army, and is immediately shipped off to the frontline, where reality hits him like the butt of a rifle to the back of the head. These men didn’t know what lay in store for them, they had no idea what they were fighting for, besides a vague sense of masculine pride. Paul and his friends are reduced to a whimpering mess minutes after arriving on the battlefield.

One of Paul’s first tasks is to ‘gather’ the identification markers of his deceased comrades, for some desk clerk back home to tabulate in their death register. He realises soon enough that when a man is at war, he is not a man. He is a discarded dog tag, a stifled statistic.

Films like this wouldn’t be half as effective if it weren’t for the power of hindsight, and the air of dread hanging over everything like the Delhi smog in December. If it happened once, it can happen again; so said Primo Levi. And it is precisely because we know how things are going to pan out for these characters that we care about the nonsense that they are fed about the glory of war, and the honour in dying for one’s country. One of the kids’ mothers told him to be careful of what he eats, displaying once again the kind of cluelessness that civilians possess about situations like this. The soldier is reminded of this as he crouches in a cramped trench, the ground beneath his feet obscured by the dead bodies of his brothers-in-arms.

It’s easy for a celebrity UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador (who will remain unnamed) to post a warmongering message at a time when the tensions between two historically antagonistic nations was fraying to the point of disintegration. It is also easy for an uncle to cite the example of ‘Siachen ke jawan’ while defending the basic failures of the ruling class. But it is incomprehensible to actually understand what a soldier posted at a conflict zone goes through.

All Quiet on the Western Front follows a trio of excellent anti-war movies that were each directed by male filmmakers displaying variations of the same attention-seeking behaviour. Hungarian director László Nemes’ Oscar-winning Son of Saul invited viewers to spend a harrowing day with a Sonderkommando — death camp prisoners who were forced to shovel the dead bodies of their fellow Jews in concentration camps during World War II — inches from his exhausted body. The sensibilities of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Sam Mendes’ 1917, on the other hand, were decidedly more melodramatic. Look, these directors seemed to be saying, loud like a platoon commander barking instructions to his troops; look at what I can do.

All Quiet on the Western Front is less show-offy, and more bleak. Nearly as bleak as David Ayer’s WWII drama Fury, but that film offset its own politics by suggesting that the only kind of friendships worth having were the ones where you’re constantly under threat of being shredded by a stray missile or something. Watching All Quiet on the Western Front is like watching one of those PETA slaughterhouse videos from the future beef’s perspective.

Moments after Paul arrives on the battlefield, he is told by his commander that he will probably not make it till the next day. Paul is living on borrowed time; he’s a dead man walking. He learns this rather quickly. And you do, too. The great French director Francois Truffaut famously said that he had never seen an anti-war picture, because ‘every film about war ends up being pro-war.’ This was a deliberately bold comment to make, especially when you consider that he died years before Uri: The Surgical Strike could even give weight to his argument.

But All Quiet on the Western Front is the antithesis of that film; it’s a call-to-arms to disarm, a passionate plea for peace, and a timely tribute to those who died for no reason. It’s one of the year’s best films.

All Quiet on the Western Front
Director – Edward Berger
Cast – Felix Kammerer, Daniel Brühl, Albrecht Schuch
Rating – 4.5/5

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