It is really powerful to finally see a German adaptation of Remarque’s landmark novel. This most recent version is certainly a different beast to the famed 1930s American film, aided by age and what is possible to now achieve on screen. Though, certain aesthetic choices limit the most recent version. The realism of the depicted warfare in the American classic (a film so close to the events put on screen) is still affronting. Perhaps it is the direct inspiration of footage from the time, and lived experience from the director, but it certainly comes across as the World War 1 we are used to seeing. Though, that may be because it is one of the foundational texts for our visualisation of this war on screen. Whatever the case, despite being grander and broader, this latest adaptation doesn’t always have the heft and impact it could have. It is at points very real feeling but is always deeply cinematic feeling, to the point of distraction.
It is also worth considering how a novel works compared to a film. Remarque’s anti-war work is so effective because of a command of interiority, it transports by forcing reader engagement. This cinematic version is a more distanced and passive work, somewhat due to the nature of the medium but this is not a criticism you could levy at a film like Come and See (1985). Where the book involves and transports, these cinematic adaptations of it place the viewer at an aesthetic distance. We are here to bear witness, to sit in observation. The experience of war is the story in the novel, enabled by the nature of prose; in these filmic works, the story is the war itself. With this version, war can be shown on screen in ever more meticulous ways. If we can argue that war drives technology forwards (a wider debate for another time), we can definitely map the technical progress of film with how it shows war. In this work, the brutality is bigger, louder and arguably presented with greater verisimilitude.
This is a bombastic work. The intrusive score is certainly a distraction, where the titular quiet really should be the deal of the day. So much of the film is visually powerful but it is also an onslaught of visuals. We do break away from active warfare, but the canvas is so broad, the storytelling pushed so far beyond the individual, that the experiential layer is lost. All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) is certainly overlong, also, with uneven pacing that works against it. Along this runtime, the human condition is not really engaged with by this film, and it does (at points) feel a bit pointless, or derivative. It is yet another visceral display of a much-filmed part of history. This brings a different language to the conversation, and is an efficient portrayal of the horrors we have learned about, but it feels a touch like it is going through the motions. This is propelled by the looser structure, a focus on event as narrative in a way that overwhelms character and conventional structure.
It is a hard balance. The event is the narrative, and it is its own narrative. So many war films focus on small stories in a way that feels cheapening, or distracting. This does not do that. But in looking elsewhere it does lose a more intimate touch. Really, though, the issue may be the overwhelming cinematic feel. The whole film feels curated, the dirt itself a kind of pristine facsimile. The cinematic lighting and moody framing add to this, a technical beauty that adds a layer of falsity. Though it is much harder to harness the subjective through film, the grammar of this work feels deeply divorced from it. These are grand arcs told in grand ways, but that grandeur loses the smaller way in which life is lived.
There is much to celebrate, though. At points, we lose the cinematic gloss, or step away from it, and gain something more worthwhile. The film never shies away from brutality and depicts it well. A number of sequences are truly shocking, even if the more precise emotions are not always transferred. It does also achieve the sense of a grand, dehumanising tragedy. The narrative structure and approach sells this well, and it is a thing very worth selling. It is a reminder that war is hell, but reminder is the highest level it reaches. Meticulous recreation is something, but we are left with an impact that many other works already provide. A worthy reminder, a more apt portrayal of the source but still something that doesn’t harness its real impact, the true reason it is vital.