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Cinema Without Borders: All Quiet on the Western Front- Cinema express

Cinema Without Borders: All Quiet on the Western Front

In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noises across the globe. This week, we talk about All Quiet on the Western Front

Published: 21st February 2023

Edward Berger’s adaptation of the 1929 Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, much like its predecessors (1930 classic, 1979 TV movie), and just like most anti-war films, focuses on the human dimension of conflict. It doesn’t romanticize heroism but underscores the futility of hostility. A brutal game of one-upmanship in which nothing is gained and all is lost. However, Berger’s version stands out in its biting portrayal of the parallel diplomatic battles for ceasefire and peace—between the Germans and the Allied forces—happening far away from the war zone. It’s the ego, honour and false pride of the powerful decision-makers that are sought to be protected in these negotiations; the lives of soldiers come cheap. All Quiet on the Western Front​ swept the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) on Sunday taking home seven awards, including best picture and director. It has nine nominations at the 95th Academy Awards.

The film opens with springtime in war-torn Germany in 1917. Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) decides to enlist in the army along with his friends. They are idealistic and all fired up by the impassioned speech of the general calling “The Iron Young of Germany” to come to its aid in the darkest hour and fight in the name of the Kaiser, God, and Fatherland. However, innocent bravado makes way for intense melancholia as the reality of war stares back at them. It doesn’t take them long to realize how misplaced their ideals have been. With the aid of James Friend’s nimble camerawork, Berger takes us deep into the narrow, constricted, never-ending trenches and bunkers, plants us right in the middle of hand-to-hand combats, gun fires, bombings, and slaughters. The once scenic landscape has turned into devastating killing fields with dead bodies thrown together and piling up into mountains of mud and blood. Berger and Friend envision them as horrifying installations, as it were, of death and take the viewers on a heart-rending walk through the tragedy. 

There are some visceral set pieces. Young soldiers are asked to strip the identity badges off the uniforms of fellow dead soldiers. The badges are then repaired and passed on to the new recruits. Heartbreaking evocations of assembly line manufacturing of soldiers. The conveyor belt of war in which an entire generation of doomed young were turned into pawns and remained no more than statistics in history. The only affirmative spirit in the bleak vistas is the solidarity of friendships—the shared letters from home, fears, and vulnerabilities as well as life lessons, battle tips, and survival strategies. The dreams of coffee, caviar, warm footbath, and girls. It’s here that the film gets a trifle stereotypical. Haven’t we seen this in countless other films? But the fine ensemble of actors makes us care for all—not just Paul (Felix Kammerer) but his comrades as well. It’s as though the trenches are holding these young men in sway. Is there a future for them after the war? How will they reintegrate back home? “We’ll walk like travellers in a landscape from the past,” says Kat, the stoicism hiding the pain of not being able to belong. 

In an unforgettable scene, Paul stabs a French soldier trapped with him in a crater, watches him die slowly, is filled with remorse, and eventually begs for forgiveness from the stranger’s dead body. Those in authority, however, harbour no such guilt. They feast on delicacies while the hungry soldiers, tired of eating turnip bread, are even willing to court death to steal a goose as a special treat for themselves. Berger’s film is a powerful plea for pacifism that comes riding on a trenchant critique of the inhumanity of statecraft. One in which the enemy is not necessarily out there across the border but within.

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