It all starts from a peaceful landscape – a quiet forest and majestic mountains bathed in the light of the rising sun. A fox can be heard from somewhere, and from somewhere else – the sounds of a baby sucking from its mother.
Nature poses as if it were a Cézanne canvas, and it seems that nothing can bring it out of its lethargy. But seconds later, the air is cut by a repeating riff of three ominous-sounding notes.
The shot zooms in, and its scale shows that the beauty and tranquility that acts as a lullaby for the viewers in the first minutes will be devastated by a sea of tanks. The beautiful picture is about to turn into a carnage, mired in mud, blood, bullets and the bodies of young soldiers.
This purely visual contrast between war and peace in the opening scene of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (All Quiet on the Western Front) provides an irrefutable basis for the filming of a new remake of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name.
Still, cinema technology has clearly evolved since the last adaptation of Nothing New on the Western Front in 1979, and now the terror of war can be installed in the minds of viewers through highly detailed images and sets.
Cinematography alone is good enough to tell a story without words, and director Edward Berger has taken advantage of its qualities to dictate visceral impressions in his audience, as Sam Mendes did in 1917 before him.
In “Nothing New on the Western Front” you will not hear spatial pleas about the need to withdraw the military units. The characters don’t do pirouettes to demonstrate extraordinary heroism, and they don’t bombard you with complaints about living like cattle. There are no multifaceted political visions that seek a reasonable, logical way out of the conflict.
At the front, the logic is simple – some are friends, others are enemies. As, of course, who will be their own and who will be foreign depends on which side of history you stand on.
As the first film directed by a German director and with a script alternating between English, German and French, the Berger version on the streaming platform Netflix transfers the points of view in two parallel storylines that alternate on screen.
This is a script and directorial decision that was absent from Remarque’s anti-war novel, and was probably added in the new adaptation to emphasize that not all high-ranking Germans are evil by default.
One narrative in Nothing New on the Western Front unfolds through the eyes of recruit Paul Boehmer (Felix Kammermer), a soldier who joins the German army out of naive patriotism.
He gets drunk on a few propaganda speeches, forges a document signed by his parents, and puts on a uniform with his old friends, imagining how he will fire a few rounds, the war will be over, and he will march victoriously into Paris, brimming with pride that fought in the name of the fatherland.
However, the reality of the battles turned out to be different. The very first day in the trenches shatters Boehmer’s dreams of chivalrous combat, and his cocky boyish fervor is quickly displaced by the bloodshed and chaos of the field.
Alongside his experiences runs the prospect of the height of World War I from the chair of politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), who leads the German delegation trying to make peace.
He looks for the compromise, considers the tone of the negotiations, floats the options, and while the agony of the soldiers exists somewhere in his mind as a motive to harness the effort to cease fire, it is difficult to feel Erzberger as Boehmer’s equal when it comes to the consequences of the war.
As Erzberger hunkers down in rooms with soft armchairs and thick, heavy curtains, wearing snacks-laden masks, Boehmer shoots an army of tanks with a rifle and watches as his friends are burned alive by the advancing forces.
Although it deviates slightly from the first person of Remarque’s novel, this intertextuality in the scenes shows that Eduard Berger did not for a moment think of devaluing the tragedy of the soldier at the front by the symmetrically developing burden of a politician. As much as Erzberger suffers, his torments are only a shade of the general background.
The film goes back and forth between the two narratives, and while the old men fight, the young ones die. The battles become more grueling and more brutal, and the camera only changes angles to show the full extent of the encroachment on humanity and nature.
Nothing New on the Western Front under Berger’s direction is the perfect rebuke to war because it absolutizes the horror of the battlefield without resorting to propaganda.
The film is eloquent enough through the spectacular sights – through the “green” soldiers with rosy cheeks, whose faces become targets, through the festering wounds, through the trampled homes, through the breakfast of two raw eggs…
With laconic lines and dialogue, Berger makes it clear that there are no winners and losers at the front, only witnesses to alternating horrific events. Each of which is darker than the last.
“Nothing New on the Western Front” is available on the streaming platform Netflix from October 28.