‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ in Golden Globes race – DW – 01/10/2023

It’s the first non-English language adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” German director Edward Berger has taken it upon himself to venture a German interpretation that launched internationally on Netflix in October 2022. 

Some critics have praised the remake as a successful anti-war drama, while others criticize the director for inventing new storylines and omitting characters and crucial scenes. Nonetheless, at the Golden Globes on January 10, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is considered the favorite in the best foreign language film category. It has also been shortlisted for an Oscar for the upcoming Academy Awards on March 12.

‘More topical than ever’

Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, published in 1929, paints a portrait of a generation that leaves school for the front and ends up perishing in the First World War. For director Edward Berger, the subject remains highly relevant today, 100 years after World War I. He cites growing populism and nationalism, which make the movie eerily topical.

A sill of Edward Berger smiling at the camera.
Director Edward Berger says the rise of populism in recent years inspired him to make the filmImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

Three years ago, when Berger started working on the film, he was incredibly worried by political developments in Europe and the world, he told DW.

“There was Brexit in the UK, we had a right-wing government in Hungary, and a rising far-right in France and Germany and many countries around Europe,” he said. “Suddenly, institutions that brought us peace for 70 years, like the EU, were being questioned.”

Berger, who lives in Berlin, was shocked by the hate speech he was hearing from governments: “That speech trickles down to the streets. I heard sentences in the tube, going to work, sentences that you feel like that almost sounded like from the 1930s in Germany, like ‘We should put Angela Merkel up against the wall.'”

This resurgence of populism and nationalism motivated Berger to take on the film: “I felt that it would be a good time to make a movie that reminded us that before World War I (1914-1918), it wasn’t that different. I thought these were times we would never come back to.”

When it was published in Germany in 1929, the German-born Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” was one of the greatest successes in German literary history. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a soldier in the war. In 1930, the work was made into a movie for the first time in the United States and won two Oscars. A second adaptation followed in 1979. Berger’s film is the first German adaptation of the book.

A soldier holds another soldier who has fallen in battle in a scene from the 1930 film.
The original film adaptation in 1930 by director Lewis Milestone won two OscarsImage: United Archives/picture alliance

“In American war films or British war films, there are heroes, which is something that comes from the history — that America was roped into the war, England defended themselves. So that leaves a very different legacy amongst the people and amongst the filmmakers that grow up there.”

In Germany, says Berger, it’s different. “I feel like in a German war film you can’t have heroes and the death of the enemy; another soldier is always a death. There’s nothing heroic; there’s nothing good about it.”

Berger retells an old story

Berger is not concerned about the criticism that his film, unlike its 1930 and 1979 predecessors, is only loosely based on the novel. “Remarque himself once said, ‘A book is a book.’ And when it’s made into a film, it’s a new medium.'” He feels filmmakers can and should take liberties and he acknowledges his film is a new interpretation. “World War I was more than 100 years ago. We have a very different perspective on it today.”

Of course, Berger and his team tried to follow the plot and characters of the novel as closely as possible. But the director was primarily interested in putting the internal conflicts of the main character, Paul Bäumer, front and center.

A scene showing young soldiers in the trenches and a barren wasteland.
The film tells the story of young soldiers in Germany who go to battleImage: Netflix/Zumapress/picture alliance

“This young man goes into war with enthusiasm, and he feels like he’s going to be a hero with innocence, with youth. And very quickly, he realizes that all his ideals, all what he’s learned as a child growing up in Germany are worth nothing.”

Indeed, the protagonist becomes increasingly brutal over the course of the film, transforming from enthusiastic new recruit to war-traumatized soldier.

Berger stays true to the “lost generation” theme of Remarque’s book, which in the preface reads that it “will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

A young man rejoices with other soldiers in a still from the movie.
The main plot centers around a young man who begins his career as a soldier enthusiastically, only to become a brutal killerImage: Netflix/Zumapress/picture alliance

New storyline with Daniel Brühl

The director and his team have also added a new plot line to the story in which German actor Daniel Brühl plays politician Matthias Erzberger. With this addition, the director illustrates the bureaucratic absurdity of the war — where elite bureaucrats and warmongering military commanders determine the fate and deaths of countless soldiers on battlefields while sitting at their desks — and places the events in a historical context.

For Berger, Erzberger, who signed the armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers after the abdication of the German emperor in 1918, is a very important figure in German history. “So now we have that privilege of knowing where the signing of this peace treaty led to — that the military used him as a scapegoat and blamed him for losing the war.” Erzberger was assassinated by nationalists two years after the war ended.

The armistice negotiations shown in the film demonstrate that the conflict continued to smolder after the war ended.

World War I, he says, was only the beginning. “Seventeen million soldiers lost their lives. And only 15 years later, the insanity got even worse” says Berger, referring to World War II.

Erich Maria Remarque sitting with plants behind him.
Erich Maria Remarque wrote the book based on his own experiences in World War OneImage: dpa/picture-alliance

A win at the Golden Globes?

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is one of five films nominated in the best foreign language film category at this year’s Golden Globes. 

The Golden Globes are typically considered to be a sign of what’s to come at the Academy Awards. “All Quiet on the Western Front” made it onto the Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature Film, along with 15 other movies.

Meanwhile, the 80th Golden Globe Awards will be presented on January 10 in Beverly Hills.

This article was originally written in German with the interview conducted in English.

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‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ in Golden Globes race – DW – 01/10/2023

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