Ideas
November 2, 2022 8:00 AM EDT

MacLauchlin is the author of Butterfly in the Typewriter. He is currently working on a biography of film pioneer Carl Laemmle

Peering through the yellow lens of his gas mask, seventeen-year-old Paul Bäumer struggles to breath. Like a creature from a distant planet, he takes in his first glimpse of the western front. Bullets ding overhead. Mortar shells explode. The trench is flooding. A sergeant, convinced Paul will be dead by dawn, pulls the mask from his face and orders him to bail the rainwater from the trench. A soldier emerges from the dugout. “Give a dog a bone and he will always snap it up,” he mutters. “Give a man power…. Man is a beast.”

Director Edward Berger’s new adaptation for Netflix of the 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front offers a grim, yet stunning portrayal of trench warfare in WWI. First adapted into an iconic film by Universal Pictures in 1930, Berger has reclaimed this story with a distinctly German understanding of war and power. There are no heroes here. No moral compass. Only a nation so deluded with its own sense of exceptionalism that it has paved the way for its own demise. This story feels more relevant than ever.

True to the book, Paul Bäumer’s descent into the heart of war begins with the lies of his teacher. Wide eyed and innocent, Paul and his classmates believe their schoolmaster when he assures them victory is imminent. They are the Iron Youth, their teacher says, fighting for “the Kaiser, God, and the Fatherland!”

The reality of war shatters that myth. After the first bombardment, Paul is pulled from the rubble. He stares into the distance, devouring stale bread, and then rises to gather the dog tag of his dead schoolmate. From battle to battle, Paul fights to keep some semblance of his humanity, but surviving this hellscape eventually leaves him empty.

Unlike most war stories, All Quiet on the Western Front makes no effort to justify or sentimentalize either side of the conflict. When Erich Maria Remarque started writing the novel in 1927, he aimed to capture his experience of the war with journalistic clarity. Paul and his comrades hold no animus towards the French. They fight because they are told to fight and do not want to die. In one of the most famous scenes from the book, Paul falls into a shell-hole and buries his knife into the chest of a French solider. For hours he lay next to the slowly dying Frenchman and finally, wracked with guilt, confesses, “If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother.”

It is this candor that made the novel an international bestseller and in 1930 caught the attention of movie mogul Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures. Laemmle, who retained deep ties with family and friends in Germany, traveled to Berlin to meet Remarque and buy the rights to the book. Sparing no expense in production, the film offered a visceral cinematic experience, immersing audiences in the sounds and images of war. When it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Laemmle became convinced this movie would turn the world away from destroying humanity. Neither Laemmle nor Remarque could have predicted what consumed Germany in the 1930s.

In this new adaptation, nearly a century later, Edward Berger draws on a fuller understanding of German history. While the war ended in 1918, the terms of its conclusion sparked a domestic conflict that would rack Germany for over a decade and eventually lead to World War Two. In the film, we break away from Paul to follow Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) leading a delegation to negotiate an armistice with France. German troops are starving, and winter is upon them. On a train carriage deep in the Compagnie Forest, the French issue unwavering demands that will gut the German military and send the nation into an economic depression. Erzberger cautions that if peace spurs more misery than war, the German people will resent it. “That is a disease for the defeated,” the French General quips. With no other option, the German delegation signs the Armistice.

Meanwhile, General Friedrich, an amalgam of the most depraved aspects of German militarism, sips wine in his commandeered chateau, and rails against the “Social Democrats…selling off our Fatherland.” Clinging to his final moments of power, he orders his emaciated troops, Paul among them, to charge the French lines. As his soldiers fall in a futile attack fifteen minutes before the armistice takes effect, the General looks to the clock.

The film ends with the first moments of peace. But as Berger notes in a recent interview at the Middleburg film festival, the end “is the beginning of a much greater horror.” The rift between social democrats and militant nationalists, between those who want democratic peace and those who embrace authoritarianism, will tear Germany apart.

Weeks after signing the Armistice, some German politicians falsely claimed Germany had been on the path to victory when Erzberger surrendered. Anti-democratic nationalist groups soon formed throughout the country, attracting ex-military officers and antisemites. They peddled the myth that social democrats had conspired with Jews and socialists to betray the nation. The press branded Erzberger a “criminal.” And in 1921 a right-wing terrorist group murdered him. Among the emerging nationalist organizations, the Nazi Party proved the most adept at gaining political power. With the reluctant support of moderate conservatives in 1933, they outvoted social democrats to endow Adolf Hitler with absolute authority.

Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front avoids drawing direct connections to the Nazi regime, but he admits, “everything in the film is imbued with my knowledge of Nazis and of what we know will come afterwards.”

In fact, the specter of Nazism has always haunted the margins of this story. When All Quiet on the Western Front premiered in Berlin in 1930, Nazis protested the screening, calling it “an affront to German Pride.” For a week, violent mobs roamed the capital, attacking Jewish citizens and smashing windows, until the government banned the film and pressured other governments to follow suit. Laemmle, however, continued to promote the film. In 1934 he traveled to Vienna to request Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss to lift the Austrian ban. Dollfuss politely refused. A few days later Nazi insurgents stormed the Chancellery and assassinated Dollfuss.

The Nazis relentlessly targeted the book as well. Once they assumed complete power over Germany in 1933, they confiscated copies from homes and libraries, burned them, and banned its publication. When they accused Remarque of being “unpatriotic,” he escaped to Switzerland, then to the U.S., where he lived the rest of his life. Undeterred, the regime arrested his sister. At her trial, the judge declared, “We have sentenced you to death because we cannot apprehend your brother.” Hours later, they beheaded her.

The trenches. The lies. The subversion. The abandonment of democracy. It would be easy to view these events as calamities of a bygone era, the material of any good war movie. The world has progressed, we tell ourselves.

And yet, nationalist movements are once again on the rise. Italy has elected a neofascist prime minister who flies the flag of Mussolini. Hungary silences its press and calls for “ethnic homogeneity.” From France to Poland, far-right politicians undermine the European Union. Brazil teeters on the brink. Russia has invaded Ukraine. And in the U.S., the oldest democracy in the world, armed “patriots” violently attacked the U.S. Capitol to overturn the 2020 election at the behest of the president. A new fascism cloaked in stars and stripes.

All Quiet on the Western Front and the history that surrounds it, reminds us of what we risk if we allow democracy to weaken under the pressure of fanatical nationalism. It reminds us what happens if we fail to keep the beast at bay. Of course, proud nations have always found it difficult to look into the mirror; so Berger does it for us. “I am from a nation that gave into its most destructive impulses twice in the last century,” he muses. “I know how this story ends.”

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