Will Garbett | University of Lancaster
"He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front."
So reads the penultimate paragraph of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front. But while the novel ends with the quiet ordinariness of a soldier’s death, Edward Berger’s 2022 Netflix adaptation ends with the spectacle of slaughter. This symbolic spot-the-difference is key to understanding Germany’s first Western Front film of the post-war period. With a century of hindsight, Berger reworks a title, some characters, and a few scenes into a completely new piece of art.
The Netflix adaptation reframes Remarque’s story. Most of the film takes place in the final days of the First World War, whereas the novel follows the fictional Paul Bäumer and his classmates from the heady days of 1914 to the autumn of 1918. A new plotline, about the German delegation at the armistice negotiations, is also introduced. This reframing speaks to a particularly German struggle to work through the past, which could not have been present in the original novel or the 1930 Hollywood movie.
This adaptation is as intense and gritty as anything since Saving Private Ryan, but a new character invented for the film, General Friedrichs, embodies a particularly sinister capacity for violence. Unable to face that Germany will lose the war, the General sends the protagonist into a final, fruitless, fictional assault at 10.45 on 11 November 1918. Though this builds to a tense and inevitable crescendo, it elides the real and tragic deaths on the Western Front in the hours leading up to the armistice. The General is complimented by the portrayal of Paul’s schoolmaster as a spittle-spraying, wildly gesticulating orator with an ecstatic audience.
The two new characters represent a point of contingency in German history. With a lust for violence and glory that stretches credulity, Friedrichs personifies the German special path, a history that can only culminate in disaster. Erzberger represents the potential that the Armistice and the Weimar Republic never fulfilled and that the viewer knows will not be fulfilled. The poor soldiers, supposedly the subjects of the film, are simply caught in the middle. In this way the film is still unmistakably a product of the German culture of memory. Yet it also fails to remember the ordinary lives of soldiers in the way that Remarque, a veteran of the war himself, depicted in his novel.
In his book’s epigraph, Remarque tells us that All Quiet on the Western Front is about the generation of men who were both physically and mentally destroyed by the First World War. The Netflix adaptation does not deal with Paul’s abortive transition to civilian life when he visits home on leave. It does not deal with the long psychological recovery of the wounded, nor with the effects of shellshock. Where scenes are retained from the text, they are reworked until their original poignance is muted. Paul’s hand-to-hand struggle with a French soldier in a shell hole now takes place during a pitched battle, rather than on an unlucky night patrol, and so loses a touch of quiet tragedy.
This quiet tragedy of war suffuses Remarque’s novel. His characters’ lives are as mundane as they are horrifying. They die slowly, painfully, for no great purpose. Perhaps warfare on that scale still seems so distant to many of us that it would not make sense for the Netflix adaptation to capture war’s capacity for the mundane. Perhaps our estrangement from that context appears in Berger’s stylistic choices – long shots of the landscape, ominous industrial music, and eerie scenes in abandoned warehouses.
This film is not a faithful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, nor does it follow the letter of historical events. Rather, it is about Germany’s difficult relationship with its forgotten war, where among Remarque’s lost generation were the men responsible for the horrors of the next thirty years. Perhaps a post-war German adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front could not be anything other than a product of a culture of memory bound forever to discussions of working through the past and Germany’s special path. This makes it a useful resource for studying German identity in the twenty-first century. As with any history, the film tells us as much about the present as it tells us about the past it represents. It is also a dark, gripping, and provocative war epic.
Book - Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (London: Putnam, 1980)
Film - All Quiet on the Western Front. (2022). Directed by E. Berger. Germany: Netflix.
Film - All Quiet on the Western Front. (1930). Directed by L. Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Notable for its disturbing depictions of shell shock and graphic military violence.
Film - All Quiet on the Western Front. (1979). Directed by D. Mann. United States & United Kingdom: CBS. A television film that faithfully follows Remarque’s novel.
Book - Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at war, 1914-1918 (London, Penguin Books, 2015) – A Non-fiction text on the Central Powers at war.
Podcast - Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook ‘Episode 118: End of the First World War and Remembrance’ The Rest is History (2021) – For a moving account of the deaths on the last day of the First World War, and an engaging British reflection on memorialisation.
Will Garbett is a PhD student in History at Lancaster University. He works on histories of contemporary satire and popular culture.