Capturing the world’s attention when it was published in 1928, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is one of the best-known novels of the 20th century. Initially a German work written by author Erich Maria Remarque, it was translated into several languages and quickly became a bestseller across the West.
It is a profoundly human tale that deals with the war’s brutality while individualizing those whom history would view as mere casualty numbers on a battlefield. The bluntness of the novel’s depiction of war was eye-opening for many who did not suffer in the trenches and provided a sense of understanding for those who did. The work’s controversial anti-war message was subtle but is found throughout. It made its point not through clumsily direct dialogue but by crafting characters who, through their stories, showed the futility and destruction of the conflict in which they were engaged.
What made the novel so special was its character development, which compounded the moral stakes and humanized a war that so painfully dehumanized its combatants. It was essentially a classic coming-of-age story that followed its protagonist Paul Bäumer from his naïve schoolboy days in 1914 through his transformation during the war into a disillusioned veteran. This focus allowed Remarque to fully capture the war, from the home front to the trenches, from boredom to action, and from horror to camaraderie.
Now, nearly a century after the book’s publication, Netflix has produced a cinematic adaptation of the timeless story. The film, directed by Edward Berger, has received largely positive reviews and is likely to be nominated for multiple Oscars. But unfortunately, it fails to live up to its namesake by poorly adapting the story, underdeveloping characters, and adding scenes that only serve to hammer home the unsubtle anti-war message.
There are plenty of positives about the new “All Quiet on the Western Front,” especially if you have no knowledge of the source material. The cinematography is spectacular, with beautifully haunting shots of “no man’s land” and eerily scenic landscapes. The costuming and weapons are period-accurate. And the images of men being blown apart by artillery shells, cut down by machine gun fire, and killed in hand-to-hand combat in trenches depict the reality of World War I combat for modern audiences in a compelling way. The film’s casting and acting are also quite good and are accentuated by watching the film in its original German.
However, these positive attributes are overwhelmed by their negative counterparts. With respect to the story, characterization, and overall message, this film deviates significantly from its source material. It adopts the outward trappings of the book — character names, certain scenes, and a general anti-war message — while missing the underlying substance that made the original so unique.
Below are mild spoilers for both the book and film.
One of the most notable aspects of the book is seeing Paul’s experience with war change from the heady days of fall 1914, when everyone was convinced the war would end by Christmas
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