Hanging on the old barbed wire

Jim Moody reviews All quiet on the western front, directed by Edward Berger (general release, 2022)

Erich Maria Remarque’s titular novel, on which this film is based, was first published in late 1928 - in two parts in the Berlin liberal newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in early 1929. By mid-1931 it had sold 2.5 million copies in numerous translations. Soon after publication, in 1930, Lewis Milestone directed the first screen adaptation, produced in the USA. His film - based on Remarque’s active service in World War I, met with Nazi demonstrations and under the Hitler regime his books were banned and burned, and he was stripped of his German citizenship.

This version of All quiet on the western front does not stint on depicting the brutality of trench warfare - up close and personal, as many of the infantry engagements were between French and German troops. As we know, during all the years of war, there was almost no change in the territory held or fought over: ‘Nothing new in the west’, as a direct translation into English of the book and its two films’ German title has it.

In a bow to much recent film depiction of World War I and II conflicts, the viscerally explicit appears here too - in much greater detail even than the 1930 version, which was made before the Hays Code (1934-68) crippled the US film industry. Whether it is the penchant of the main character, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), for using his short-handled trench tool as an ad hoc blade or an SFX beating of one combatant by another in hand-to-hand combat, there is individual barbarity aplenty.

But, even in stilted form, class divisions are evident too, contrasting rank-and-file soldiery starving in the dug-outs, whereas staff officers of the German High Command stuff their faces on fine dining. A recalcitrant general, Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), and his adjutant express their militarist and bourgeois disdain for social inferiors during a splendid meal just prior to the armistice. Next morning, with hours to go before the ceasefire, Friedrichs urges on his regiment’s reluctant soldiery with a few instant executions, only marginally delaying the charge to death of most of the rest of them, Paul included.

Food was indeed scarce on the German front line. But artistic licence is taken too far in introducing a couple of jape-like raids by Paul and his best mate, Stanislaus ‘Kat’ Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), on a nearby French farmstead to steal first a goose and later goose eggs. The second theft leads to Katczinsky being shot fatally by the farmer’s young son. None of this appears in the book or the first film and adds nothing of moment to the storyline. But it permits other important aspects of the story to be crowded out, despite the film lasting nearly two and a half hours.

During a major attack, Paul and his school friend, Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer in the 2022 version), are wounded and hospitalised; Paul gets discharged, but Albert’s leg is amputated. However, although Albert is understandably downhearted in hospital, that is as far as it goes in the first film; in the new version of All quiet on the western front Albert is seen killing himself, somewhat melodramatically. The 2022 depiction simply results in overdramatisation of what was an already effective scenario, despite being at variance with the way he dies in the original.

Also completely absent in this film version is the significant episode of Paul returning home on leave and confronting his old teacher, professor Kantorek, who is still a German nationalist to the core, and new students holding ideas that Paul has discarded and now opposes. In both the book and 1930 film version this is essential in the way that it firmly establishes Paul as thoroughly rejecting national chauvinism through his wartime experiences and being prepared to express his changed ideas strongly. He returns to the front, having failed to get those at home to understand the horrors being enacted in their name. The redemptive power of Paul’s experience is frustrated by the nationalist ideology held by Kantorek and the teacher’s students.

But in the 2022 version the depiction of Paul’s redemption is weak, disjointed and individualised rather than being shown as part of a common experience. It does not look like an epiphany. Correspondingly, Paul’s interaction with a dying French soldier in a shell crater is moved further toward the end of the film and bowdlerised into the experience of one individual rather than that of the whole collective. The resulting sentiment is expressed in particular by the World War I song, ‘Hanging on the old barbed wire’, sung by British soldiers, which officers tried and failed to eradicate. In this version of the film Paul feels annoyance, then pity, at the Frenchman’s dying groans, and only then, after he has died, does he get a glimmer of the horror of what killing in war is really all about.

While film adaptations by their nature must edit - distilling and concentrating essential elements, compared to the original - it is clear that the 1930 film version is closer to Remarque’s novel in important respects in comparison with the 2022 Netflix production.

There have been several distinct reactions to the various iterations of All quiet on the western front since 1929. The 1930 version has quite rightly been held in high regard by film enthusiasts for its artistic qualities and production values - and its thoughtful and humanist approach, which it shares with Remarque’s novel.

However, what was much in evidence, certainly in the 50 or so years after World War II, has been the film’s utilisation by propagandists of pacifism. Among them are self-described socialists and some alleged communists, who imagine that rendering capitalism peaceful is not only possible, but a necessary precursor to social change. Whilst many pacifist activists have been in the forefront of sometimes mass-supported campaigns, theirs is not an ideology that is going to aid the fight to end capitalism. Pacifism’s aim for a peaceful capitalism is deluded, and is something that Marxists judge to be idealist and illusory, as well as plain impossible. One only has to look at past experience. In fact, to proclaim pacifism is to literally disarm the working class in its mission to destroy capitalism, since that will only be done through revolution, which the capitalist ruling class will almost certainly resist to the utmost of its state’s capabilities.

As Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his study On war, “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.” War and peace are two sides of the same capitalist coin: war when the capitalist system needs it; peace while awaiting the next war. If you want peace, you will need to fight to overthrow capitalism.

Jim Moody