NOTE: SPOILERS FOR ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, WHICH, I MEAN…. GOD BLESS YOU IF YOU NEED THIS WARNING.
Just to clarify up front: war movies are not typically my thing. I never like when someone says something akin to “All [X] movies are the same to me!” because that’s a lazy person’s way of writing something off. To say any franchise or genre is indistinguishable based solely on its existence is infuriatingly shortsighted… and kind of ignorant. You just aren’t looking for differences because you don’t care if you find them!
But, man. Most war movies are all the same to me, haha. At least when it comes to actual soldiers-in-the-battlefield war movies (so not something like, say, Inglorious Basterds, which is technically a war movie, but not from that point of view as much). Show me trailers for this movie, Dunkirk, and 1917; I guarantee I’ll get at least two, if not all three, mixed up.
Like… I feel like I can picture the trailer and/or major moments of so many war movies in my head. Muddy people running. Explosions right next to our protagonist. Airplanes buzzing nearby. A cast of heroes that dwindles down.
To me, Saving Private Ryan got war movies decidedly and perfectly right, and when I watch a war movie, my lazy, stupid brain goes “This is just an inferior attempt to be Saving Private Ryan”.
So all of that is on ME, and I accept that. I’m the problem; it’s me. I’m everything I hate about other movie fans when it comes to war pictures.
So why watch something I was likely not going to love? Well, it’s nominated for Best Picture, and I had already seen 4 of the other 9 nominees. I wanted to at least get up to half of the total list, and this was the only one I could watch for free in my house right now.
So I flipped on Netflix where I just recently was mesmerized by the glory of RRR, hoping for another such achievement!
For those unaware, All Quiet On The Western Front is based off of a fictional story about World War I from a German soldier’s point of view. There have been cinematic adaptations before, but this is the first Big-Deal film made on it in quite some time.
The story centers around Paul, a young German who has to deceive his way into the Army so he and his friends can go chase the glory of proudly marching into and conquering Paris. He very quickly finds that war is nowhere near the parade of success and heroism it had been sold to the citizenry as.
Over his two years in the war before the Armistice is reached, Paul watches his friends–both those from before the war and the ones he made in his company–meet grizzly demise after grizzly demise. We also see the negotiations behind the scenes, by men living much better lives than Paul, to finally bring the bloodshed to an end. The arcs build in unison as we wait to see if peace will arrive in time to save our young man from the fate that took so many others.
TWO UPS AND TWO DOWNS
+On a purely technical level, this is quite the spectacle! It’s very well shot! There are some long single takes that are very impressive. The scope of some of the scenes really brings him the vastness of the setting. It’s an incredibly well put together movie. Edward Berger really has an eye for filmmaking, and he knew how to make the dire circumstances of the book (and war in general) feel especially hopeless to the viewer.
In addition to his work, though, the actors really sell everything here. Felix Kammerer is the star of the show, and he is great in his portrayal of Paul. His descent from starry-eyed would-be hero to defeated and empty soldier is palpable. He has glorious expressiveness, and the abject horror of what he is going through comes across in his face without having to say a word.
+Speaking of Felix as Paul, there is one scene in particular that stands far above any across the rest of the movie. Stuck in a crater with a French soldier, Paul is forced to stab his enemy many times over just to survive. In a scene that drags on–in the very best of ways–Paul goes from warning the dying Frenchman to shut up and not give away their presence (and shoving mud down his gullet to ensure that) to being horrified at the slow, painful death. Paul rushes back over to the young man and desperately tries to help him survive, reassuring his enemy that he is a comrade. Despite his efforts, the soldier still dies in Paul’s hands.
Kammerer is outstanding here as Paul rises above the war effort and sees this boy on the other side as just another suffering human. The scene feels like it goes on and on, but that’s actually to its benefit. How often do we see someone get stabbed and instantly die in a movie? We get a more disconcerting and realistic portrayal here, and it forces Paul into real introspection, for however long that can last in a war.
-While the crater scene may have been a good example of something being extended over a period of time, I have to point out that All Quiet On The Western Front is almost a full two-and-a-half hours long, and the last fifty minutes or so is maddeningly stretched out. At about that point, the movie feels done. The Armistice has been signed, and the fighting is over! But the movie just… keeps… going. There’s a scene with Paul losing his last remaining friend because they decided to go steal eggs from a farmer, and it’s unnecessary given what comes after it. Is this scene in the book? Probably. But this should have just been truncated or removed entirely because it is unbelievable, goes on too long, and does not feel deserved. It’s “cheap heat”, as it were.
And even after that, the movie continues to JUST KEEP GOING in a tacked-on final confrontation so Paul can die literally one minute away from peace. I think that’s supposed to feel tragic, but instead, it just reminds me we are watching a forced narrative fiction. It’s the emotional opposite of every show you have seen where a hero stops a bomb countdown with one second or so left. After about 100 minutes of suffering that was earned, Paul and Kat (the last friend I mentioned above) die by way of cinematic emotional manipulation.
All Quiet was about forty minutes shorter than RRR, but it felt an hour longer.
-Any other Down I give All Quiet is going to be wholly subjective. Like I said: it’s mostly a solidly filmed flick. But I’m fine with subjectivity, so here we are: I was never wholly engaged throughout this. And a lot of that can come down to seeing this in my home when I’m sure it would play better in a theater. But I would spend chunks of this movie on my phone or just not really caring what was going on. Occasionally something like the crater scene would happen and I would perk up, but it felt like this movie got my attention in spurts rather than never letting me go. But that’s just a minor, subjective down. Your mileage might vary!
It’s hard to really properly score this because I recognize how well made this movie was (for at least 100 minutes before the last 40+ plus), but it was never going to be “for me”. But I will also say this: I’d long since known war movies weren’t my thing before I saw Saving Private Ryan for the first time, and that movie wow’ed me on every conceivable level despite my prejudices. All Quiet simply did not have that wow factor. It certainly deserves its nominations this award season! But I wish that final act had not felt so tacked-on.