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'Unconvincing': Baroness Gisela Stuart reviews 'All Quiet on the Western Front'

'Unconvincing': Baroness Gisela Stuart reviews 'All Quiet on the Western Front'

Felix Kammerer as Paul Bäumer | © Reiner Bajo – image courtesy of Netflix

3 min read

Despite high expectations – and its powerful soundtrack and impressive cast – this intensely frustrating film left me cold

If I’d been asked to go and see a two-and-a-half-hour-long film about “17-year-old young Paul joining the Western Front, having his initial excitement shattered by the grim reality of life in the trenches” I would most likely have politely declined the invitation.

Being asked to watch a new film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues, directed by Edward Berger, music by Volker Bertelmann and an impressive cast of German actors was a completely different proposition. Of course, I would want to see it. Early reviews were overwhelmingly positive, it was released to streaming on Netflix and Germany made it its submission to the Academy Awards. It was also said to be more true to the book than the 1930 and 1979 film versions. And yet I found it an intensely frustrating film.

When I first read the book as a teenager it left a profound impression. The misery, the tedium, the dehumanising conditions, the extreme detachment from civilian life. A generation of young men fed on rousing patriotic speeches used as cannon fodder. Military leaders as out of touch as they were stubborn.

Remarque says: “This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling.” In the final chapter he warns about a generation that will not be understood, that returns to the old positions where they will forget about the war and “behind us, a new generation is growing up, one like we used to be, and that generation will be strangers to us and will push us aside”.

When I first read the book as a teenager it left a profound impression

This 2022 film weaves the armistice negotiations into the plot, provides more context to the narrative, and shows the seeds being sown for an even more devastating war 21 years later. The cinematography is stunning, but it is too perfect and too crisp to draw the viewer into the narrative. The scene where Paul – trapped in a crater in no man’s land with a French soldier he has stabbed – has to watch his slow and painful death should be a shattering experience. But it wasn’t. The soundtrack was a much more effective conveyor of the fear, pain, and sheer monotony of life in the trenches. There were some moments when the characters took on a life and allowed the viewer to be part of their journey. Franz spends a night with a French woman and brings back a scarf as souvenir. Kat gets a letter from his wife and worries about life after the war. But these moments are few and far between. 

Maybe this film isn’t for my generation, and it is perfectly possible that this is just what today’s 17-year-olds need so that they don’t fall for stirring speeches. Judging from the audience in the cinema, not many teens seem to have been inspired to watch it – perhaps they’ll catch it on Netflix.

Baroness Gisela Stuart is a Crossbench peer

All Quiet on the Western Front
Directed by: Edward Berger
Broadcaster: General cinema release & Netflix

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