All Quiet on the Western Front (2022): Bombs, Barbed Wire, and a Bourgeois Train

Jackson Sroka and Gabe Schmick

Since it was first published in 1928, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, has been widely hailed as one of the greatest anti-war stories ever written. Since then, many people have tried to translate the story to the world of film, namely Lewis Milestone’s acclaimed adaptation in 1930, and Delbert Mann’s color version in 1979. While both films are certainly excellent, there has always been one issue: despite the German story, both adaptations almost feature exclusively American or British actors. This changed on October 28, with the release of the newest adaptation directed by Edward Berger; featuring an all-German cast speaking their native language. But how does the film stand out on its own? And how does it compare to the legacy of the original novel? After watching the film for myself, I can confidently say that not only is it a faithful adaption, but it is the best cinematic adaption of the story yet.

One thing that immediately stuck out to me about this film is the beautiful cinematography. From wide landscape shots panning over the French countryside to shots of mundane office life, nearly every shot is beautifully composed and well thought-out. Landscape shots of nature are often contrasted with the devastation of no-mans-land on the front. This difference between the war and what lies outside it becomes a recurring theme throughout the film, and it is established right from the first few shots. On top of that, the film’s use of lighting is very well done. Near the beginning of the film, there is a shot I loved where a battlefield at night time is slowly revealed by the light of a single flare.

The film’s editing is also creative, specifically in the combat scenes. Much of the film is shot in slow wide angels, which creates a peaceful, almost serene atmosphere. However, this peace is broken instantly once combat begins, where they shift to close handheld shots with fast pace editing. Especially in scenes in the trenches, it feels very claustrophobic and chaotic. I loved the contrast between these two styles. It creates an immersive atmosphere, where the audience begins to appreciate the slower scenes, knowing that a battle might erupt at any moment. One thing I also thought was clever was how the film displays violence. There is not as much gore compared to other contemporary war movies. There is a good amount, but most of the time it is used more as a background detail as opposed to the main focus of the shot. I feel that a lot of violent movies rely a bit too much on gore to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience, but this can often end up distracting from the actual purpose of a scene. Instead of relying on just blood and guts, you see the actors in this film slowly get covered in dirt, mud, and grime until their faces become almost unrecognizable, allowing the horror of the actual events to speak for themself.

The film’s use of music was well done. A common motif used many times is this very-jarring “BWAH” sound effect. Though odd at first, I found the sound growing on me as the film progressed. It is jarring and forces a sense of dread on you, much like what the soldiers felt walking into the trenches for the first time. Overall, the film has little music and is completely cut out during all combat scenes. Combined with the excellent editing, it creates further immersion for the viewer and gives you a great sense of the pure chaos that the characters are going through.

All Quiet on the Western Front is one of my favorite books, and I am proud to say this film is a great adaptation. All the themes of Erich Maria Remarque’s original are still present – I would even say some of them are expanded on. Firstly, the main character, Paul’s, development from a fresh-faced patriot recruit to a battle-weary veteran is handled excellently and becomes especially apparent by the end of the film. You can feel the chemistry between Paul and his friends, especially Kat, who is an older soldier and a mentor figure Paul befriends on his first night in the trenches. These relationships add a lot more weight to the events of the film, and a human connection. My only complaint is I wish the film focused more on the daily life of soldiers off the front lines. This is something the original book does a lot, and I wished they showed a bit more of it in the film. That being said though, I can understand why this change was made, and what replaced those scenes is well worth it.

The movie adds a new plotline that the book did not have: a story about a German diplomat at the November 11th Armistice that ended the war. I was skeptical of this addition at first, would this completely separate plotline take the viewer out of the immersion of the frontlines? But it turned out to be a great addition to the film. The main thing I love about it is the way the film contrasts these diplomatic scenes with the scenes of Paul in the front. The diplomats speak about the war in an abstract way; to them, it is still a battle of ideologies between nations. The film will often cut from the diplomats arguing over the treaty straight to the fighting on the front, emphasizing the human cost of the decisions the higher-ups make. This contrast between the two sides of the war is an important idea to the entire story. It is a small choice in the narrative but helps emphasize that core theme. 

Overall, I believe the new adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front is a faithful adaption of the original novel, as well as just an excellent film on its own. The cinematography is beautiful, the characters are well-fleshed out, and it is creative in conveying its message about the horrors of war. I will warn you, it is not an easy watch. They do not hold back on showing firsthand the cost of a war such as this, and there is a significant weight to most of the film, both physically and emotionally. But I would still highly recommend this film, as it does an excellent job of bringing Erich Maria Remarque’s story to life in the modern age. I would go so far as to call it one of the best war films made in recent times.