Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was arguably the first, and inarguably, amongst the very best anti-war movies ever made. Adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel, which Remarque based on his own experiences as a German soldier in the trenches of World War I, the film went on to win Oscars for best picture and best director. All Quiet on the Western Front was remade for American television in 1979, with Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine.
But it has taken nearly a century since the publication of Remarque’s book for it to be adapted in German, the language in which it was written. Partly, this has to do with the book’s history in the Third Reich. The Nazis banned and burned copies of All Quiet on the Western Front for its “treasonous”, and decidedly unheroic, depiction of war. Remarque’s story follows Paul Bäumer, a student who, inspired by his teacher’s patriotic speeches, leads his class to volunteer to serve on the front. But that patriotic fervor does not survive the first day of battle. What follows is a brutal, and shockingly honest, depiction of the horror and trauma of war and the toll, both physical and psychological, that it takes on the young men who fight.
Capturing that horror, and giving a very unheroic cinematic vision of war, was one of the main goals for director Edward Berger in his new, German-language adaption of All Quiet on the Western Front. The film, which premieres Sept.12 at the Toronto Film Festival, stars newcomer Felix Kammerer Bäumer, Albrecht Schuch (System Crasher) as his brother-in-arms Stanislaus Katczinsky, and star Daniel Brühl (Rush, Inglourious Basterds) as a German diplomat negotiating his country’s surrender in the war’s final days.
All Quiet on the Western Front was just named Germany’s official entry for the 2023 Oscars in the Best International Feature category. After its TIFF premiere, the film will go out in select theaters in Germany on Sept. 29, in the U.K from Oct. 14 and after an exclusive engagement at the Paris Theater in New York from Oct.7, in select theaters in the US from Oct.14. It bows on Netflix worldwide Oct.28.
Why remake All Quiet on the Western Front and why now?
Well, it is the first German adaptation of the book and that was a big reason for me to do it. I watch a lot of American and English films, as we all do, and occasionally there is a war movie or even an anti-war movie among them. And I find them extremely entertaining. But I feel they never show my perspective, the perspective I have as a German. Not that of America, that saved Europe from fascism, or England, which was attacked and drawn into a war against their will, whose soldiers returned home, certainly traumatized and psychologically broken, but celebrated as heroes, [where] the war is an event that enters the national psyche as something that the society is in part proud of. For us, it’s the exact opposite. In our national psyche, there is nothing but guilt, horror, terror and destruction.
And we have ourselves to blame for that. It’s not like someone attacked us, it’s our own fault. I think that makes us look at war differently. There’s nothing heroic about it, nothing great about it. I inherited that perspective from my great-grandparents, from my grandparents, from my parents. My children will inherit it from me and their children will have it from them.
So doing a war film, as a German, means looking at it differently. There are no heroes in war. Every death is a terrible death. I thought sharing this perspective might be interesting for other countries as well, countries that might see war differently.
Of course, when we made the film we couldn’t have anticipated what would be happening in Europe right now, with a war going on against Russia. But, somehow, we seem to keep forgetting what war is. The topic never gets old. Which is why now is the right time to show this film.
The book and previous adaptations, focus entirely on the trenches, on the war on the front. In your version you have a second narrative, that of the German diplomats, led by Daniel Brühl’s character, trying to negotiate a peace treaty with the Allies. Why did you add that?
Well, the book is 100 years old now. The war is 100 years old. Viewers today simply don’t have the historical context anymore. I thought it was important to provide that context in order to capture the soul, the essence, of the book. Also, to put the story in a historical perspective. Because when Erich Ramirez Maria Remarque wrote All Quiet on the Western Front, the war wasn’t over. The Second World War started exactly there, at the end of the first one, at those peace negotiations, with the defeat of the Germans who couldn’t get over it, who started saying: we actually won, but we were forced to surrender because of these people who betrayed us. Erich Maria Remarque didn’t know World War 2 was coming [he wrote the book in 1928] but I think adding this context is in the spirit of his original novel. The fact, unimaginable at the time, after these horrific battles, all this destruction, that 20 years later there would be another war, with the same people fighting.
We have become so accustomed to seeing war depicted on screen, Sam Mendes‘ 1917 will still be in many people’s minds. How difficult was it for you to find a new visual style to tell this story?
Once I took up this perspective, of the German soldier, it wasn’t difficult. Because it is a new perspective. We’ve had the American, the English perspective on war. But, somehow, the German perspective on these battles, on this devastation, hadn’t been seen before. I felt relatively free, visually. We have a hero who is not a hero at all, just a protagonist, who guides us through the film.
For every visual decision, it was important to me to put the viewer in the shoes of Paul Bäumer, the main character. I wanted to make the feel physically tangible as if you were going through it with him. To almost feel it physically. Every decision made with the camera was driven by that intent. Every angle, every position. What does Paul Bäumer feel right now? That’s what we wanted to capture.
At the beginning, the first scene, before we meet Paul, it’s done like a single take, as if the audience is running onto the battlefield. Later we used more editing, or more deliberate editing, to reflect Paul’s inner condition. Taking the perspective of 1917, which is shot a bit like an adventure movie, well an English director can do that. A German can’t. For a German film, it would be the wrong approach.
One scene I felt was extraordinary was after the first battle, when you show the aftermath, how the bodies are piled up, the uniforms stripped off, and the send back to be washed, mended, and handed out to the next group of soldiers.
That actually comes directly from the novel. I thought: what is Erich Maria Remarque trying to do here? What is he trying to say? For me it is how a generation of boys were just devastated by the war, they returned home no longer able to communicate with the people there. The solidier loses his soul in this war. He just becomes a machine, because he has to, to protect himself. That’s the machinery of war and I thought it was important to establish that theme, visually, right at the beginning of the film. You see the uniforms, piled up on the trucks, washed like on an assembly line. And the machine keeps going, feeding off the next generation of boys coming through, being sent to the slaughter.
There are several well-known German actors in the film, including Daniel Brühl, but I’d never before seen Felix Kammerer, who plays Paul Bäumer. Where did you find him?
The novel is so well-know, it’s really iconic, so it was important for me that the audience come to this figure of Paul Bäumer without any preconceptions. We wanted to find someone new, someone, who had not yet been discovered. Felix Kammerer is a terrific actor who works at the Burg Theater in Austria. He’s Austrian. As luck would have it, the wife of the film’s producer also works there. She sent me a photo of Felix and I thought: his face was already so old-fashioned and so classic looking, so pure and so innocent. We continued to cast for another 3-4-5 months. I saw some 500 young actors. And we invited Felix back again and again. And every time, he just got better and better, just growing into the role. At one point, it was clear, it had to be him. It was a real discovery.
Speaking of discovery, German audiences know Albrecht Schuch, who plays Bäumer’s comrade Stanislaus Katczinsky, from System Crasher (2019) and Berlin, Alexanderplatz (2020). But this film might be the one that gets him noticed internationally.
It’s a bit surprising he hasn’t already been discovered [by Hollywood]. But Albrecht transforms with every film, each time it’s like a new discovery. You barely recognize him. With Stanislaus, he just walked in with this performance, this earthy, potato-eater type.
Do you think it will be a challenge to get international audiences to empathize with German soldiers in a war movie?
That’s a great question, and it’s one I’ve been grappling with it for a long time. I definitely don’t want this film to be understood as excusing German actions in the war, quite the opposite. And I don’t want people to think: oh look at those poor soldiers.
In Germany, maybe differently than in other countries, we are much more critical of our own history. We rightly look at our history critically and try to understand it somehow, to process it. We are very critical of the military. Right now, that’s causing problems with the war in Ukraine because just sending weapons to another country, or intervening in a war in any way, is hugely controversial in Germany. It would be horrifying for me if any country saw this movie as excusing the actions of German soldiers in war.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Check out the trailer for All Quiet on the Western Front below.