“Give a dog a bone and he will snap it up – give a man power… man is a beast.”
These are the words that greet seventeen-year-old Paul Bäumer during his first few minutes in the mud-soaked trenches of Northern France, 1917, as the pouring rain muffles distant explosions and the overhead snapping of gunfire. After forging his father’s signature and enlisting for WWI with his friends, the truth of war is fast revealed to Paul as death and horror become a new, dystopian-like reality.
Perhaps any accurate and honest depiction of war is inherently anti-war, but it is certainly true for Edward Berger’s new German adaptation of the 1927 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, released on Netflix just a few weeks ago. It paints a brutal masterpiece of the horrors of WWI, with both viewers and critics in agreement as ratings skyrocket. It can be difficult to watch the compelling simplicity and brutality with which Berger delivers the quiet and constant terror of the front line – several viewers have admitted watching in small doses – but for this reason alone it is essential viewing. We are immediately plunged into intensity as the sombre opening follows the shoulders of a young soldier onto the battlefield, and his bloody, bullet-riddled uniform back to the military laundry. If we find war uncomfortable, it is for good reason. It should never be glorified when it has destroyed the lives of millions, their suffering determined by a few. The film highlights the comfortable distance often to be found between the suffering and those with the power to end it, drawing unsettling contrasts between the ‘grunts of the filthy trenches and their leaders feasting on fine wine in the spotless boardrooms’.
Berger discusses the difference in this film from the more heroic British and American war films that he grew up watching in Germany. He says they have a sense of pride or accomplishment to them; liberators of fascism and defenders of democracy. But there is no sense of pride in Germany for that part of history, he notes. “There’s a sense of shame, guilt, horror, terror, responsibility towards history… I wanted to tell that story.” After all, can we name any good that came from the war? Poverty, resentment, desperation, fascism, more war. Millions killed, more disabled and widowed and orphaned. Headlines read Hurray for What? (1935) and People Want Peace (1940). Berger’s adaptation comes with the heavy understanding that neither side really won in the end.
As current social unrest and political uncertainty steadily increase, All Quiet serves as a solemn reminder that the most important things we can be are anti-authoritarian and anti-war – but people just aren’t listening. Not even a century later nationalist movements are once again on the rise. Italy has sworn in the neofascist leader of the most far-right party to govern since Mussolini, press freedom declines in Hungary and the beginning of the 21stcentury has become defined by the division of new border walls across the globe. Russia invades Ukraine, ‘patriots’ storm the White House at the request of the president – ‘a new fascism cloaked in stars and stripes’.
All Quiet manages to hold the mirror up to society today with unsettling clarity. It’s sad that an anti-war story as brutal as this one feels so relevant at almost any time – but those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and it is clear from current events that we are not learning. As Remembrance Day approaches it is not enough to absently shake our heads or take a two minute silence with our minds elsewhere. We need to use our voice to vote and have a say in the leaders of the country, take advantage of the freedom of our media and learn about the horrors of the past. It isn’t too late to prevent a repeat of 20th-century atrocities, and at the very least we must exercise the freedom that millions suffered and died for at the orders of authoritarian corruption.
As Berger says, “I am from a nation that gave into its most destructive impulses twice in the last century. I know how it ends.”
Image by Laurentiu Lordache on Unsplash