Shooting the Elephant
All Quiet on the Western Front is a quality production, and that's the trouble
There has been some bitchery about All Quiet On The Western Front — the new version from Germany that’s up for the Best Picture Oscar, based on the Remarque novel and first filmed by Lewis Milestone in 1930. At Slate, for example, Rebecca Schuman calls the new one “a high-budget Black Forest Chainsaw Massacre without any of the horror genre’s usual pleasures.” This strikes me as completely wrong; in fact director Edward Berger’s restraint is obvious and admirable (though the motivations for that may be mixed). But in the end the restraint may be what undoes the movie.
It didn’t surprise me when AQOTWF wound up with so many Oscar nominations; it’s the closest current equivalent of those elephantine quality pics that usually filled a nomination slot in the five-nominee days like Nicholas and Alexandria, Judgment at Nuremberg, King Solomon’s Mines, and Gandhi. These lead balloons used stunning scale, literary pedigree, and/or social significance (so long as it didn’t creep into social criticism) to make the product look sufficiently expensive and serious to justify the price of the ticket.
Now, some of those movies are pretty good, at least in their craft elements — quality will tell! — but there’s almost always something missing, because in this kind of movie-making the conceptual stuff that snobs like me go for is usually way down the list of priorities. (Look at Ben-Hur — perfectly lovely production, but when you compare it to most of William Wyler’s other movies it’s sort of a drag.)
The story, which I only know from Milestone’s version, is as elemental as it gets: The disillusionment and eventual destruction of Paul, a German youth caught in the maw of the First World War, played with appropriate callowness and horror by Felix Kammerer. Nearly all the drama is in the many opportunities All Quiet provides for Paul and his comrades to die. Though the comrades are properly introduced, most never get a chance to become more than “the one with the glasses” or “the one that looks like Andrew Garfield” — which makes sense, as war cuts so many down before they become fully themselves. But this vitiates the dramatic impetus, because besides Paul there’s no one we’re worrying about too much, as we expect everyone to die. Kat, the cobbler who becomes Paul’s best mate, is an exception, and his and Paul’s adventures and discussions are among the best scenes; but the usual war movie rooting interests are not much in play.
Thus Paul’s life is the film’s MacGuffin, in the old fashioned Hitchcock sense — we can’t really leave until he dies or gets out. What this MacGuffin pulls us through is a famously anti-war property, though, and for that to be effective it has to be more than a funhouse of horror and disgust, which (were it as Schuman describes) would quickly wear us out. And at times during the two-and-a-half-hour run it seems as if it will.
But there are incidents that broaden the palette: For example, in one scene (mild spoiler) Paul and Kat bring badly-needed food to their badly-wounded buddy and his sudden turn for the worse distracts them; after the buddy has died (horribly), Paul finds that another famished soldier has stolen and is eating his meal. The way Paul’s and Kat’s raids on a French farmhouse end up would be more spoilerish to reveal so I won’t, but I will say these are the kind of coldly observed realities that make the film’s “one damned thing after another” plot more bearable, because the one damned thing after another looks less like a movie plot and more like life itself.
I’ll add that while the violence is disturbing and its persistence grinds, it is remarkably tasteful considering what a meat-grinder the war is. That sounds ridiculous, but there’s good and bad to it. On the one hand, any fool can blow up heads and bloat dead bodies, but it takes an artist to give hell a unified visual structure. The blasted faces look like grotesque masks rather than destroyed flesh, more muddy than bloody, which apart from the suggestion of decay reduces the Grand Guignol factor, and leaves the relentlessness of the destruction rather than Famous Monsters of Filmland effects to do the work.
On the other hand, I also suspect another reason there’s less gore than there might be is that the filmmakers didn’t want to drive the audience out of the theater or into hysterics. But who knows — maybe, given the message, that’s just what they should have done.
The craft work is fine. I can accept the argument that the cinematography and art direction are too clean, but I find they make the devastation coherent and believable (and do a good job of showing the natural beauty it’s displaced as well). The discordances and weird noises in Volker Bertelmann’s score are surprising and just right. I’m less enthusiastic about the insertion of armistice negotiation scenes — especially since the ironic spectacle of well-fed politicians dithering while boys die is rather spoiled by Matthias Erzberger’ desperation to get the armistice done. (Maybe there’s a German thing going on there I’m not clear on.) The acting is all up to snuff, especially Thibault de Montalembert as an ice-hard General Foch.