“All Quiet on the Western Front” – Sympathy for the Invader
The latest adaption of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is on Netflix, a German production that gives a grim and gruesome depiction of World War One. Based on the 1929 book by Erich Maria Remarque, differing in parts from the book and previous films, it stands on its own and respects the source material. A sobering depiction of war and the tragedy of state violence, the film is very much anti-war about human characters treated as inhuman elements in the harsh setting of the Western Front.
The film focuses on two German soldiers, Paul and ‘Kat’, set at first in 1917 with the youthful eagerness of teenage Paul joining the fight with a willingness to serve his nation and win the war swiftly. Only to soon learn that his illusions were part of a mass romantic delusion, finding that war is miserable and frightening. Paul and his fellow youth become but more pieces of meat flicked into the mincer of destruction. The Western Front of the film is muddy, bloody and exhausting, the war itself is the antagonist supported by heartless generals and field marshal.
The heartless mechanisation of warfare that would define much of the twentieth century was on display in the film, from the reclaiming of dead soldiers uniforms to have them returned behind the lines, washed and then repaired so that they may be filled by more bodies or the collection of tags to record the fallen, thousands of names and birthdays recorded with indifference. The scarcity of material seemingly more precious than human life which itself is as disposed of with as much regard as one would have for bullets and munitions.
Without spoiling the films outcome or providing an actual review in itself, it is in the films ability to generate sympathy for the invader that is one of the strengths of the adaption. In the years since World War Two the trauma that the first world war left on the world and the level of bitterness shared between the belligerents is almost forgotten. The Kaiser was the ‘Hitler’ of his time, at least as far as the allied propaganda machine would lead you to believe and the German soldier was a brutal murderer, responsible for raping nuns and slaughtering children.
When Erich Maria Remarque wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1929, he no doubt leaned into his experiences of the war. The trauma and humour of the soldier, the hopes and fears, the humanity. It was a story not just relative to the German soldiers that existed in Remarque’s own life or book but for all soldiers who make war possible. Despite certain perspectives of history, the German soldiers were still human beings, men and boys each unique as we understand all people to be. It is easy to view history in the macro, to ignore that the armies of imperialism and government violence are comprised of individual humans. Men like Paul and Kat are likeable even though they are also capable killers trapped in war.
The book and films are anti-war by nature. They do not make for an argument to praise war or to argue a case for any positive utility to be found in it. It reveals war to be a destroyer of the physical and spiritual, it is the savage and uncaring killer of lives and dreams, Remarque depicts this through his characters and the events of the book, human beings that lose their agency. Millions of human beings sacrificed by a few under the guise of some collective good or because policy requires it. The anti-war nature of the book led to its banning in some European countries during the 1930s, a time and place that could have benefited from a dose of the reality of war.
Paul and Kat could exist in any other war in another uniform. Paul, the seventeen year old, naive and with the tragic innocence of youth denied a future beyond the futility of war and military service. While Kat is a man who was a shoe maker before the war tore him from his profession to be a soldier. The cast of soldiers around them are also human beings, veteran and boy alike. They could be found in the jungles of Vietnam as American soldiers or even in the 21st century as Russians in the Ukraine.
Besides stealing from a farmer, the soldiers in ‘All Quiet’ commit no atrocities against the civilians, other than the war itself. Imagery from Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’ are not needed to heighten the emotions against war. That does not mean that no atrocities against civilians did not occur near the trenches of Paul and Kat. We see surrendering soldiers burned alive by flame throwers and men shot on the spot for expressing dissent, that is as we are often told, war. In the film it is a horrific and intimate reminder that war is disgusting, free of romantic righteousness.
The sympathy for the characters reveals a willingness in the viewer and reader to connect with another human being. Once we see beyond the uniform of a nation, looking into the eyes of men and boys who serve we can understand better the futility of war. It is how soccer games emerged in the first Christmas of World War Oner after all. Humans desire to connect, it is government and laws that spurned hatred, violence and mass death. Felix Kammerer is cast well as Paul, his eyes expressing in the universal language of emotion, whether happy to eat stolen goose or lost in the thousand yard stare, he is relatable and tragic.
The desperate hunger of the soldiers in the trenches is contrasted by the statesmen and military officers, far from the dangers of war as they gorge opulently. Those making the decisions seldom suffer the consequences of them, words such as honour, pride and ambition are scoffed out by the obese war masters while the men dying in battle care only about survival. It is a contrast that is shown in the film, the reality of policy.
Beyond the trenches the film shows the negotiations between German and French delegates that would lead to the armistice on the Western Front. It is decided to be 11 hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. Human beings have a strange love for symbolic numbers. Those soldiers who would die between the signing of the armistice and the official moment for the wars end are tragically wasted to satisfy the necrotic religion that statesmen have for such historical monuments.
The moment of wars end is captured with a surreal harshness, once the announcement is dramatically made that the war is over, nightmare switches to absurd peace. German and French soldiers locked in desperate combat suddenly stop fighting, the dead lay as another prop on the stage of human history. Former belligerents now walk past one another, exhausted by war now only to suffer the fate of coming influenza, hunger, nightmares and in another generation a far deadlier war.
Paul though though young, is a killer. His innocence and charisma as a protagonist is not eroded by the lives that he takes, he does not hesitate to kill and kill he does with savage purpose. The French soldiers that he kills exist to tell his story. They are humans all the same and men just like him. Paul is a lost boy, not a good German but a heroic one. A generation too young to have an SS badge on his uniform or to be associated with a still pariah ideology, though if he was born later he could just as easily be Guy Sajer’s ‘Forgotten Soldier’. Near the end of the film, Paul looks a ghost, skin caked in dried mud and remnants of death, his eyes distant, barely a man, already depleted of living.
War is horrible, that is the point of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, it is also avoidable. The instant that war erupts does not emerge from a singular catalyst, it is not simply because a nationalist kills two elderly monarchs. War is a series of steps that culminates into a tragic impact of death, it is always righteous in the minds of those who push for the violence. In the years after, those who may have survived it or lost loved ones can romance the reasons and importance of the war, that some greater good was found, that the dead sacrificed and were not wasted. It is the romantic illusions about war that leads humanity to fight more of them.
Though now it may be all quiet on the fronts of world war one, in the century since humanity has not learned, war has raged on, millions of men and boys like Paul and Kat have fought and died. With each and every adaption of the book, new generations will be exposed to the ancient tale of men fighting a futile war for distant masters. Though it is only with the distance of time that we are allowed to sympathise with the invader on an individual level. It is why a Russian soldier in the Ukraine according to Western eyes is not a man or a boy, instead a they are a uniformed killer. It is such an inhuman perspective that ensures we will always march to war, that boys like Paul will enlist to fight it and men like Kat will be ripped from their lives to die in it.