War films generally have plots. This is not surprising, of course, as moviegoers tend to want to see a story unfold at the cinema. But these narratives can actually make it harder capture the senselessness of war. Even movies committed to showing the brutality and cruelty of combat, like “Full Metal Jacket” or “1917,” tend to structure the brutality and cruelty around missions or goals which inevitably rationalize the action. Soldiers, in these films, are going somewhere; they have something to do — whether that “something” is taking out a sniper (as in “Full Metal Jacket”) or preventing a doomed attack (as in “1917”). They may die and fail; they may persevere and succeed. But either way the fact that there is something specific to gain, something specific to do, gives their fate, and war itself, a measure of meaning.
Edward Berger, the director of the newest Hollywood adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” loosely based on Erich Maria Remarque’s famous 1928 antiwar novel, is determined not to allow film convention to justify the carnage and futility of World War I. The result is in many ways a frustrating film. But a shorter and more satisfying narrative would not have been as true to the material, or to Remarque’s pacifism.
The movie is focused on the experience of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a painfully young German boy who lies about his age in order to enlist with his friends in 1917. They are rushed to the front with much patriotic exhortation and little training, and are soon thigh deep in mud and death. Paul is saved from his own ignorance early on by the advice and friendship of Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), an older soldier who has been longer on the front.
This "All Quiet on the Western Front” doesn’t have a real plot, per se. Instead, Berger structures the movie around a series of vignettes as Paul and his comrades move in and out of the fighting more or less at random. Battle scenes have a terrifying gothic sweep, as Paul staggers around a grey and colorless No Man’s Land replete with blasted trees and twisted corpses. Behind the lines, in contrast, the men are engaged in the peaceful bare bones of survival — stealing a goose or reading letters from home on the latrine.
The mundanity of life behind the lines emphasizes the nightmarishness, and the unnaturalness, of battle. The disconnect is so great the soldiers feel they may never be able to bridge it. When they return home, Kat says, “We’ll walk around like travelers in a landscape from the past.” He goes on, “I ask myself if I wouldn’t rather just sit around a campfire with you… and eat fried potatoes, with the skin on.”
Berger refuses to provide any narrative mission for the men — not even the mission of returning to an unimaginable normal life. That’s one way he keeps war from becoming meaningful. Even more important, though, is his decision to set 90 minutes of the 2 1/2 hour movie in the days, and then the hours, before the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice.
This is a distinct departure from the novel, but it’s a canny one. For most of the movie, viewers and soldiers alike know that peace is coming at any moment. Germany has already lost; further fighting is superfluous. Battles go on, but they’re just an exercise in murder. The meaningful actions are being undertaken by the negotiators. The soldiers’ deaths, and their lives, have no possible effect on the outcome.
You spend more than an hour just waiting for the thing to end. And that’s just what Paul is doing as well; desperately praying for the story to stop before he or his friends are murdered, so that he can stagger back to whatever is left of his life.
Instead of narrative giving the fight meaning, the continued fighting and death occurs against your narrative expectations. The movie turns your desire for closure against you. War is a kind of anti-narrative, which causes a rupture in the satisfying progress of the plot. You aren’t rooting for the characters to succeed in their military mission. You’re rooting for someone to bring the war to a halt before more people die.
Berger does make some concessions to movie convention. The film cuts away from Paul on occasion to show us the peace negotiations, led by the noble Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl). It also swoops away to dwell on the ranting of Gen. Friedrich (David Striesow), a hardline German nationalist who thinks Erzberger and his cohort are selling out the fatherland.
These interludes essentially provide the film with a Hollywood-like hero and villain. Matthias is fighting to save lives (against the impassive French). Friedrich is a bloodthirsty proto-Nazi. This moral binary is unnecessary and glib — especially in comparison to the affecting scene in which Paul first desperately stabs, and then tries to staunch the wound of, a French soldier trapped with him in a shell hole. That’s a scene in which we’re made to see that Paul is neither better nor worse than the people he’s shooting at. French and German soldiers alike are pointlessly murdering and dying in the mud. This isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a story about good guys and bad guys, and Berger’s decision to gratuitously add one of each is baffling.
These missteps are unfortunate. But I think they’re overshadowed by the movie’s successes. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is an antiwar movie that refuses to turn war into a tale of progress or success. Instead, it actually makes you wish the war would stop.
The film is too long; it’s sometimes exasperating; it goes off on unnecessary and confusing tangents. That could all be said of the war it’s depicting, as well. Berger could have made a more coherent, more masterful picture. But if he did, he would have perhaps failed to capture something essential about World War I, which at its core was a shapeless, endless and horrifying mess.