There are two opposing forces at play in All Quiet On The Western Front; chaos and stillness. It all begins with stillness. The air is still deep in the woods, the trees only slightly waving their branches in the wind. The bodies, still with the permanence of death, are strewn across a battlefield.
Then comes chaos. Young soldier, Heimrich, is overwhelmed with fear and panic as bullets whizz by his head and feet, missing him only by millimetres. Until one doesn’t miss him. That one bullet is followed by others and Heimrich falls to the ground. Stillness takes over his body.
It’s a grim start to a grim film. All Quiet On The Western Front is without a doubt brilliant, but it is a gruelling watch. It also never really tells you anything you didn’t already know about the brutality of war.
The film is directed by Edward Berger with uncompromising clarity, a refusal to turn the camera away at the ugly stuff. We’ve seen it all before of course, but never quite so clearly. The war here is not heroic – although our band of heroes at first seems to think so – but cowardly, desperate and unfair. The camera often lingers on all the destruction left behind by war.
Felix Kammerer plays Paul, the closest thing we have to a protagonist here. Paul is eager to join the war, lying about his age to be sent to the front and into battle. He and his friends believe they will be heroes and that war will be glorious. Reality hits soon enough, as his friends die, one by one and Paul is left devastated by his experiences.
Kammerer perfectly portrays the loss of innocence within Paul and James Friend’s cinematography constantly frames Kammerer’s large eyes in a tight close-up so we can observe him watching the chaos and death unfold around him.
All Quiet On The Western Front is relentlessly, almost unbearably bleak and miserable. With a runtime that stretches to nearly 2.5 hours, this is not a film I will ever be revisiting. I can see the occasional beauty within the framing and admire the frankness of it all, but I was left shaken, upset and anxious after the last frame.
Berger’s film feels particularly timely as the conflict in Ukraine rages on. The main group’s idealism and their incessant need to be heroes also rings very true as we obsess over the newest Marvel or DC offering. But, as Paul and his comrades quickly learn, heroism isn’t given nor is it even earned. No one survives war because they’re great at it; survival is by chance and by luck.
All Quiet On The Western Front is deeply immersive when it alternates between the ear-shattering sounds of war and the silence that often follows the hail of bullets. But the film is also too in the moment. We never have time to learn anything about Paul and his friends, which means when we do lose them, it doesn’t sting as much as it should. Yet, All Quiet On The Western Front is a harrowing, haunting watch that authentically captures the pure insanity of war.
All Quiet On The Western Front is now in cinemas and will be streaming on Netflix October 28.