‘All Quiet’ adaptation fails in every way, but especially upward

Images courtesy Netflix.

2/10 Netflix’ first-ever German language adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front leads the charge of international prestige movies in 2022, releasing pre-packaged with the announcement of its submission for the 95th Academy Awards as a Laser-accurate adaptation of the iconic novel. What’s happened instead is low-level MCU star Daniel Brühl has made self-insert “All Quiet on the Western Front” fan fiction for himself designed specifically for viewers accustomed to the shortcomings of MCU and Netflix movies, and I hate it so, so much.

Northern France, spring 1917- Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his friends eagerly enlist for the Great War and are immediately introduced to the horrors of trench warfare on the Western front. Then the worst thing you could ever put onscreen in a World War I film, the words “18 Monate später,” flash across the screen, and we spend two more hours surviving this horrible war with Bäumer and his friends, just with the knowledge that it’s almost over, with the sense of danger significantly lessened now we’ve been informed through onscreen text that 18 months have passed, and they’re grizzled veterans now because of all that time during which nothing exciting that you might want to put into a movie happened, I guess. 

In a B plot that’s historically accurate but wasn’t in the book and adds nothing to the story, new German Secretary of State Matthias Erzberger (Brühl, who also produces) negotiates the 11 November Armistice, clashing with both the German government that’s in a deep rut of sunk-cost thinking and a French government that will only accept an unconditional surrender. In a C plot that also wasn’t in the book and adds nothing to the story, the fictional Gen. Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) has tedious and obvious metaphorical meals and complains about liberals to make sure everyone remembers it’s a prequel to the Nazi movies. This is a prudent move – the continuity is pretty crowded at this point, and you need to make absolutely sure your audience knows where they are in the Real Wars that Really Happened Cinematic Universe.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a detailed first-person account of the constant shit of trench warfare. All Quiet on the Western Front Marvel-fies the book’s events for American viewers, cracking and remodeling everything to fit into three keynote battle scenes at the exact beginning, middle and end of the film. It’s done a remarkably faithful job of something that shouldn’t have been done at all.

All Quiet on the Western Front has enormous pacing and conflict problems that make it extremely difficult to sit through, and not in the any of the ways you’d want a World War I movie to be difficult to sit through. Editor Sven Budelmann makes two and a half hours feel closer to five, to the point that my dominant emotion watching the film is impatience. I spend so much of the movie bored and seeking out core problems with the film that, by the time it picks up, I’m not in the mood for fixes. The film is just too cumbersome and paced too slowly for me to mentally tease the effective bits out of it.

War is an assembly line into which young boys are fed and nothing comes out.

I first watched this in a theater without the benefit of a timecode, so I genuinely thought the midpoint battle at the 1:08:00 mark was the movie’s climax and expected it to wrap up shortly afterward. I was bored enough by the uneventful stretch between the first and second battle scenes that I was actively feeling happy I’d finally get to leave the theater soon, and I’d only been there for 68 of the movie’s 147 minutes!

As soon as the first timeskip, you can know that this isn’t the movie you’re looking for, because you can’t skip time in trench warfare. The passage of time in this setting should be excruciating. A lot of what gives the book its bite is long descriptions of Bäumer forced to sit in trenches or holes in the ground and listen to the horrors of the war. Every moment is a monumental struggle in which death might be around the corner, and skipping past even a moment of that, even with the implication that this is all going on during the timeskip, takes away the source material’s defining trait.

Bäumer’s transformation from a bright-eyed, propaganda-filled recruit into grizzled veteran is fully within this timeskip. What should be the core character arc of this movie is literally skipped over – we get a little “before” and a whole lot of “after,” but the “during” is a handwave of “18 Monate später.” 

The idea of a World War I movie that feels like it doesn’t have enough conflict seems astonishing, but this is that movie. Throughout the film, Bäumer is fighting for survival, but the pacing so slow and the fight scenes are so sparse it feels like they don’t exist. The scenes of him holding compromising positions for hours on end are all gone, presumably folded into that “18 Monate später” filmmakers thought nobody wanted to see. An entire galaxy of conflicts and tensions ought to be here, but they don’t make it to the screen.

In the B plot, Erzberger presents a lot of the same problem. He’s fighting to end the war, the conflict is there, but for the first half of the film, he’s not waging that fight against anyone. He spends his scenes talking at length to no one in particular about how war is bad. Between these two plots, it feels like there’s no conflict in this World War I movie, a feeling so powerful it poisons the rest of the film even though it’s mostly limited to the second half hour of the movie.

Erzberger and Friedrichs essentially replace the novel’s Sgt. Himmelstoß, the enthusiastic representative of the obtuse, uninformed German High Command within the trenches, and this is another point at which a direct adaptation of the book would have been so much simpler and more effective. We don’t need B and C plots to highlight the pointlessness of Bäumer’s struggle on the front, and we especially don’t need that at the expense of a character who’d highlight it right there in the A plot – what we need is those 18 Monate.

There was a movie that came out in 2022 called Bodies Bodies Bodies, and this wasn’t it.

Most of the meat of the book is crammed into the second battle scene, in which Bäumer and his unit charge the French line, and it’s a good, solid mass warfare scene, but it also feels like a filmed Wikipedia entry about World War I. The new weapons that made entrenchment the dominant strategy and helped make this war so uniquely horrible roll across the screen almost like a parade – there’s the marching band of machine gun fire followed by big tank floats and the flamethrower section.

This is where All Quiet on the Western Front inserts the iconic scene of Bäumer sheltering in a crater in No Man’s Land next to a French soldier he’s stabbed to death, fixing a helmet to his rifle and lifting it out over the hole to see if it’s safe for him to retreat, and all of the movie’s problems converge. In the book, this happens after hours of waiting in the mud forced to stare guiltily at the human being he’s just killed, but because everything in this movie is condensed so thoughtlessly, he does it immediately while a wall of bullets is still whizzing overhead, defeating the literal and emotional points of the moment as he mechanically goes through the motions of an adaptation. It’s a great bite-sized portrait for the whole project.

Where is my World War I action-horror movie that digs into the day-to-day details of life in the trenches instead of skipping over 18 entire Monate? This movie exists, it’s called 1917, and you should watch it. All Quiet on the Western Front is extremely late to the prestige World War I movie party, and it wouldn’t have been made at all if the party hadn’t started a while ago. When the film was first announced, the rationale was that World War I was already in-fashion for prestige movies and Parasite’s Best Picture win meant that foreign language films were on the way up in America.

This was all to justify a microscopic $20 million budget, the kind of budget that just about any war movie ought to be able to recoup, at least in the pre-pandemic box office this was greenlit for.

It’s also not exactly proud to be German-language. Screenwriters Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson wrote the script in English and translated it, then shot it in Deutsch, then Netflix set the default player to an English-language dub for some reason. All these extra steps don’t really add or take anything away from the film, it’s just a weird and overcomplicated process that makes you wonder what the goal really was here.

All Quiet on the Western Front wasn’t announced for Netflix, but Netflix acquired the worldwide distribution rights before production began as part of a scramble to maintain its standing in Europe, and what should be a prestige war film ends up with a lot of those off brand-MCU, made-for-Netflix hallmarks that drive me up a wall. There’s very little camera movement, and what is there is subtle, often just tracking moving subjects so they stay centered in a shot. Almost everything is the same shade of grey or desaturated to the point that it looks like it, which is appropriate for World War I, but we’ve seen films branch out from that.

All Quiet on the Western Front wasn’t written for or produced during 2022, but unfortunately, this movie about Germany’s first narcissistic, futile and apocalyptic invasion of France was released to streaming eight months into Russia’s narcissistic, futile and potentially apocalyptic invasion of Ukraine, and it really drives in the film’s different perspective on World War I. The vast majority of films about the war are English-language and carry the perspective of American and British troops coming to France’s rescue, often begrudgingly given how much shit was involved, but there are very few films from the direct perspectives of the invaded and invading countries. The whole subject feels very different now concurrent with the war in Ukraine, whom no one has rescued yet, but whose perspective is centered in media narratives about the war. French troops were in just as much shit as English and Germans, but I have to imagine they were much more eager to fight over France.

These new contexts almost certainly have something to do with the film’s incredible reception in the English-speaking – but notably not the German-speaking – world. It cleaned house at the British Academy Film Awards with seven wins, including Best Film, from 14 nominations, and it’s got nine nominations at this weekend’s Oscars, where it will almost certainly win Best International Feature and is considered the best bet to spoil the night for Best Picture favorite Everything Everywhere all at Once. Netflix’ desperation to finally collect an Oscar is surely another factor here.

This year’s slate of nominees is a pretty great cross-section of the various hinges Oscar campaigns can build around, many of which don’t include being a good movie. All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t one of those.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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