Paul Bäumer, 17, is having trouble breathing as he peers through the yellow lens of his gas mask. He has his first glimpse of the western front, which resembles something from another planet. Above, bullets ping. The mortar munitions detonate.
The trench is overflowed. A sergeant instructs him to remove the mask from his face and orders the rainwater to be bailed out of the trench because he believes Paul will be dead before daylight. A soldier comes out of the trench. He murmurs, “Give a dog a bone and he will always snap it up.” Give a man strength, for a man is a beast.
The 1929 book All Quiet on the Western Front has recently been adapted by director Edward Berger for Netflix, and it provides a bleak yet breathtaking depiction of trench warfare during World War I. Berger has recovered this tale with a particularly German perspective of war and power.
This narrative was originally turned into an iconic film by Universal Pictures in 1930. Here, there are no heroes. no sense of morality. Only a country that is so certain of its own exceptionality that it has paved the way for its own destruction. The relevance of this tale seems to be increasing.
In accordance with the story, Paul Bäumer’s journey into the heart of the conflict starts with his teacher’s lies. Paul and his friends, who have naive wide eyes, take their schoolmaster at his word when he says victory is close at hand. According to their teacher, they are the Iron Youth and are fighting for “the Kaiser, God, and the Fatherland!”
The truth about war dispels that legend. Paul is rescued from the wreckage following the initial bombardment. He rises to get his dead classmate’s dog tag while he eats old bread while gazing off into the distance. Paul strives to maintain some humanity from battle to battle, but surviving this hellscape eventually leaves him empty.
All Quiet on the Western Front does not attempt to rationalize or sentimentalize either side of the struggle, in contrast to other combat stories. Erich Maria Remarque set out to write the book in 1927 with the intention of accurately capturing his experience of the conflict.
Paul and his companions had no ill feelings for the French. They fight because it is required of them and because they do not want to perish. In one of the most well-known passages from the novel, Paul plunges into a shell hole and stabs a French soldier in the breast. He slept next to the dying Frenchman for hours before finally confessing, “If we threw away these rifles and this uniform, you could be my brother.” He was overcome with guilt.
Due to its candor, the book became a worldwide success and, in 1930, Carl Laemmle, the creator of Universal Pictures, became interested in it. Laemmle went to Berlin to meet Remarque and purchase the book’s rights because he still had close ties to his family and friends there.
With lavish production values, the movie gave viewers a visceral cinematic experience by submerging them in the sights and sounds of battle. Laemmle was sure this film will stop the planet from annihilating humanity if it won the Best Picture Oscar. Laemmle and Remarque were unable to foresee what would engulf Germany in the 1930s.
Nearly a century later, Edward Berger uses a more thorough knowledge of German history in this new rendition. Even though the war was declared over in 1918, the conditions of its end began an internal conflict in Germany that would last for more than ten years and ultimately spark World War Two.
In the movie, we take a detour from Paul to follow Matthias Erzberger, played by Daniel Brühl, as he leads a delegation in talks with France over an armistice. Winter is approaching, and the German troops are famished. The French issued steadfast demands from a train carriage hidden in the Compagnie Forest that will decimate the German forces and plunge the country into an economic crisis.
Erzberger warns that the German people will resent peace if it results in more suffering than war. The French General comments, “That is a disease for the defeated.” The German delegation is forced to sign the Armistice.
General Friedrich, a synthesis of the worst elements of German militarism, is drinking wine in his seized chateau while railing against the “Social Democrats…selling off our Fatherland.” He commands his malnourished soldiers, Paul among them, to storm the French lines as he clings to his last bits of power. The General glances at the clock as his soldiers perish in a fruitless attack fifteen minutes before the armistice goes into effect.
The opening seconds of peace signal the end of the movie. The conclusion, though, “is the beginning of a far greater tragedy,” as Berger observes in a recent interview at the Middleburg film festival. Germany will be torn apart by the conflict between social democrats and fervent nationalists, between those who favor democratic peace and those who support authoritarianism.
Some German politicians wrongly asserted that Germany had been headed for victory when Erzberger surrendered weeks after the Armistice had been signed. Nationwide anti-democratic nationalist organizations quickly emerged, drawing ex-military personnel and anti-Semites.
They propagated the falsehood that social democrats had teamed up with socialists and Jews to betray the country. Erzberger was labeled a “criminal” by the media. And a right-wing terrorist organization killed him in 1921. The Nazi Party emerged as the emergent nationalist group with the best track record for securing political influence. In 1933, they defeated social democrats in a vote to give Adolf Hitler total power, with the reluctance of moderate conservatives.
While Berger avoids making overt allusions to the Nazi government in All Quiet on the Western Front, he does acknowledge that “everything in the film is saturated with my knowledge of Nazis and of what we know will come afterward.”
In actuality, the Nazi specter has always lingered on the periphery of this narrative. Nazis protested the screening of All Quiet on the Western Front in Berlin in 1930, calling it “an affront to German Pride.” Until the government outlawed the movie and put pressure on other governments to do the same, violent crowds roamed the capital for a week, assaulting Jewish residents and breaking windows.
However, Laemmle kept promoting the movie. He visited Vienna in 1934 to ask Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss to abolish the Austrian embargo. Dollfuss declined formally. Nazi rebels invaded the Chancellery a few days later and killed Dollfuss.
The book was also mercilessly targeted by the Nazis. They seized copies from homes and libraries, burnt them, and forbade their publication once they gained total control of Germany in 1933. Remarque fled to Switzerland and later the United States after they accused him of being “unpatriotic,” where he spent the rest of his life. The regime didn’t back down and detained his sister.
“We have sentenced you to death because we cannot find your brother,” the judge said during her trial. They beheaded her a few hours later. Nationalist movements are however once more on the rise. A neofascist prime minister who waves Mussolini’s flag has been elected in Italy. Hungary declares “racial homogeneity” and silences its press. Far-right politicians weaken the European Union from France to Poland.
Brazil teeters precariously. Ukraine has been invaded by Russia. And in the oldest democracy in the world, the United States, armed “patriots” brutally invaded the Capitol building to rig the 2020 presidential election. brand-new fascism concealed by the flag.
The history surrounding All Quiet on the Western Front serves as a reminder of the dangers we run when we allow democracy to falter in the face of ferocious nationalism. It serves as a reminder of what occurs if we are unable to control the beast.
Of course, it has never been easy for proud nations to face their reflections, so Berger does it for us. I come from a country that twice in the previous century gave in to its most destructive impulses, he muses. “I am aware of how this tale finishes.”
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