When it comes to Oscar bait, All Quiet on the Western Front has everything: A blistering, cacophonous score! Severe sepia-and-blue color correction! The resplendent Daniel Brühl! Two hours and 27 minutes of unrelenting gore! And it worked! Of course it worked. Not only did the American media nearly universally fawn over director Edward Berger’s adaptation (the third to date) of Erich Maria Remarque’s influential 1929 novel, All Quiet has now claimed nine Oscar nominations—including the first-ever Best Picture nod for a German-language film.
So with all of this international hullabaloo, you might think the Germans would, at long last, be visibly impressed by something, namely the first-ever German film production of what was originally called Im Westen nichts Neues. To quote a film that perhaps should have gotten nine Oscar names instead: Nope. Instead, throughout the culture pages of the venerable German press, Berger’s rather freewheeling rendering of a book every German Schulkind knows by heart has not merely been broken. It’s been—to name a few random examples—machine-gunned, gassed, grenaded, bayoneted, shelled, tank-crushed, blowtorched, suspended as a headless legless torso from a tree—and, at long last, stagbed ineptly in a forgotten crater and left to gurgle itself to a helpless demise for an interminable number of minutes.
You know what? I’m firmly Team Deutschland on this one. They’re right. They’re right to take issue with the mangling of Remarque’s timeless narrative into what is essentially a grisly picaresque, a high-budget Black Forest Chainsaw Massacre without any of the horror genre’s usual pleasures. And yes, I get it: The movie is unwatchably gruesome, you see, because otherwise we might think trench warfare was dope as hell. Thank you for disabusing me of this notion literally nobody has had since 1916! I want my two hours and siebenundzwanzig minutes back.
But perhaps it’s unknown for us, as Americans, to reject All Quiet as anything other than a very important harrowing cinematic experience that should join Schindler’s List and Apocalypse Now in the morally unassailable anti-war pantheon. So, I say we just let the Germans do it for us, in the way only they can: with very long words that seem invented to evoke weirdly precise states of affairs.
It hasn’t merely been broken. It’s been machine-gunned, gassed, grenaded, bayoneted, shelled, tank-crushed, blowtorched, and suspended as a headless legless torso from a tree.
take Schlammschlachtfor instance, which means mudslinging gold mud fightand ends with the German word for battle which also evocatively happens to be the root word for slaughter. Schlammschlacht, by itself, is the headline of Hubert Wetzel’s blistering review in the venerable Süddeutsche Zeitung, describing the weather conditions in which most of the film’s slaughter take place, and, presumably, also the filmmakers’ treatment of a literary treasure. Indeed, while Wetzel takes a glorious swipe at the movie’s Grand Guignol style—“anyone who does not yet know, but wants to, may learn from watching All Quiet on the Western Front that there were many, many different ways to kill and die in the First World War”—the main focus of his ire is Berger’s disregard for the source material. And while his pithiest one-liner has also been admired in the Guardian—“No book is so good you can’t make a bad film out of it”—it’s his sincere musing about whether Berger had even read the novel at all that sets the Süddeutsche’s pages alight. The film has so little in common with its source, he argues, that “Had the characters not borne the same names as those in the book … it would be difficult to find noteworthy parallels between the two works.” Indeed, if “an American director had dismembered Remark’s book in this fashion in order to bring it to the screen, the outcry in the German cultural sector would have been particularly violent.” Wetzel’s final concept of the film requires another epic compound: Kriegskitschgold war schlock.
Not to be outdone, Andreas Kilb writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “there are no anti-war films.” Instead, “There are war films that operate at the height of their craft, and others that don’t.” Just in case you thought for even a second that All Quiet belonged in group eins, Kilb introduces us to another fantastic compound to express the fathomless depths of his loathing. At issue, actually, is the exact sort of didactic pandering that American audiences gulp down like a perfectly crisp Pilsner. “So that every viewer understands that Im Westen … is not simply a feature film but also a piece of history,” Kilb explains, “Berger has inserted half an hour of Schulfernsehen between the action sequences, and adjusted the timeframe of Remark’s novel accordingly.” I’ve left the biting Schulfernsehen untranslated here because it has no English equivalent; it literally translates to “school television,” ie, something your history teacher trots out on an ancient tube TV when they’re too hungover to give a pop quiz.
The “television” in question is what Berger shoehorned into the film to break up what would otherwise be what Kilb calls a Dauerbeschussgold relentless gunfire, of unimaginably gruesome ways to be maimed and/or killed. It’s hard to choose a favourite, per se, but I suppose it would have to be when the ostensible protagonist Paul Bäumer (newcomer Felix Kammerer, doing an admirable job with a script that mostly calls for screaming and death rattles) watches one of his school buddies attempt to surrender to the French —only to be torched with a flamethrower at close range before he’s finally shot. After all, why offer viewers a reprieve from the blood and guts by leaving in the famous pages where Bäumer goes on leave and struggles to live in polite society again after what he’s witnessed and done? Instead, why not just insert an entirely new set of characters, higher-ups who drink fancy wine and ride on fancy trains and include a bloodthirsty general so clichéd that he spends the movie sitting in his mansion literally twirling his mustache? Even on the big screen, Kilb concludes, All Quiet has the effect of a “pumped-up miniseries” that will be lucky to live on in war-film history as a footnote.
Sure, it’s not a huge surprise that Germans are being critical about something. It’s their most beloved national pastime. But the evisceration of All Quiet is in a class by itself. Why? One reason is that Remark’s novel is hallowed literary ground. It remains to this day tea German World War I novel—or, as Kilb pointed out, even tea European one.
This is not just because of its honest portrayal of the obscenity and futility of sending an entire generation of teenagers to die on behalf of a decaying empire. It’s also due to All Quiet‘s unique place within a German consciousness that has, well, a starkly different relationship to the First World War than pretty much everyone else. HASll Quiet was a history distinctly not written by the victors, banned when the Nazis took power in order to flatten and exploit the complex pain the Great War’s losers faced. The result of that flattening led, of course, to another world war, and atrocities so great that Germany will never cease to be infamous for them no matter how benign its actions in the intervening centuries manage to be.
The War to End All Wars is, indeed, a minefield for Germans, and to have its most sacred text hacked up in service of what the tabloid Bild accurately called Oscar Geilheit (or “horniness for an Oscar”) is not merely unsatisfactory in the manner that Germans find most things unsatisfactory. It’s bad enough that even they don’t always have the words for how bad it is.