Director: Edward Berger (Germany, USA). Year of Release: 2022
1917, the Western Front. The German army is preparing to advance. One man peeps his head over the parapet and is rewarded by a bullet. But still, they go over the top, charging into raging gunfire. We concentrate on one of the soldiers, Heinrich, who advances, first tentatively, then with more confidence, until he too is shot dead. His uniform is removed and we cut to a factory full of women, busy with sewing machines on old clothes. So far, no-one has uttered a full sentence.
Cut again to: North Germany. Paul and his friends are meeting up after school. Each of them has forged his father’s signature and lied about his age, so that he can go and fight for the Kaiser, God and Fatherland. They are incredibly excited as they hand in their papers and are issued with a uniform. Paul returns to the desk. There has been a mistake. His jacket already contains a name – Heinrich’s name. “Oh its ok”, they tell him. “Someone was given it and it was too big for him”.
For all the camaraderie and singing on the way to the front, war in Im Westen Nichts Neues, is a lonely occupation. One by one, Paul’s schoolfriends are mown down by French guns. Some time along the line, he makes a new friend – Katczinsky, known as Kat. Kat is an illiterate cobbler, and from a quite different social background to Paul, who reads out the letters sent by his wife. He is also significantly older than most of the younger soldiers, and more adept at staying alive.
If there ever was a quiet, quiet, LOUD, film, it was this one. Particularly the beginning of the film contains a lot of scenes in which nothing much happens. The soldiers wait in their trenches for something to happen, or go on walks where they try to chat up local peasant girls or steal geese from the farm. This banality is interspersed with scenes of soldiers bayoneting each other, or attacking enemies with an axe, and that’s before we get to the tanks which crush human bodies.
This mixture of boredom and chaos is contrasted with the lives of the generals and politicians who occasionally appear on screen. They all drink wine together, and complain if the biscuits are a day old. The generals belligerently demand more offensives. A, presumably Social Democratic, politician Matthias Erzberger, played by Daniel Brühl, encourages them to accept defeat before there is any more loss of life, but they’re having none of it.
There is an inherent problem of any war film, of which an anti-war film like this one is part of a sub-genre, which is that there are only so many ways in which you can show young men killing each other. So, there is an undue reliance on special effects and a manipulative score. Added to that, seeing as one of the main messages of the film is that war contains brief moments of excitement in between long, dull, phases, if things get too thrilling, it’s not doing its job properly.
Im Westen Nichts Neues is a liberal film, by which I mean that, like the European novels which first appeared around the growth of capitalism and bourgeois liberalism, the plot concentrates more on an individual than the collective. At first, Paul and his classmates are a group of people who discuss their futures and make the same fatal decision to join the army collectively. But the more that the film goes on, the more we are shown how the mounting hell affects Paul as an individual.
Does this matter? Well, to an extent. The film seems to have 2 messages (well, more than 2, there are also undertones of the rich officers not having to undergo the same hardships as their men). Firstly, that war is hell, but also that it’s inevitable. Whatever Erzberger’s misgivings about the terrible loss of life, he’s not in any real sense of power, and must wait for the generals to admit defeat. Given the power of the military industrial complex, how could things be any different?
Well, the film actually does hint at an alternative, even if it doesn’t mention it explicitly. One of Erzberger’s arguments for stopping the war is that some soldiers have stopped obeying orders. But this disobedience only ever occurs off screen. The potential of soldiers collectively stopping the carnage is never considered. The dissenting soldiers who played a significant role in the Spartakus Uprising, shortly after the war petered out, are airbrushed from this account of history.
There is a coda to the film, which shows that its view of history is more cynical. With a peace treaty signed, and a ceasefire imminent, one of the generals called a last offensive. AT 10.45 am, on 11th November 1919, just 15 minutes before the armistice took force, German troops made one last pointless foray into French territory. Many died as a result. This is a symbol of both the pointlessness of war, and a feeling that generals are too powerful to experience serious opposition.
It is too long since I either read Erich Maria Remarque’s book, or watched the 1930 film, to remember whether this last bout of futility was in the original, or has been added to this version. Either way, someone, at some stage, has taken a conscious editorial decision to highlight this defeat, and to pay no particular heed to the incipient German Revolution. This is a legitimate conclusion, but I find it unnecessarily pessimistic.
Nonetheless, this is a film that looks great, and one which shows us the wanton destruction of warfare, not least in the pained eyes of its suffering characters. It is well worth a watch. The fact that it could have been even better shouldn’t blind us to its obvious qualities.