Tonight (March 12, 2023) is the 95th Academy Awards. One of the films nominated for Best Picture is the 2022 remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, made in Germany and directed by Edward Berger, loosely based on the classic 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. The previous version of the film, made in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, won Best Picture that year. Whether I think the new All Quiet will or should prevail over its Oscar competition like The Fablemans or Everything Everywhere All At Once is not the point of this article, but as All Quiet is in the news again, it's worth examining it as a cultural artifact and a statement about the profound, still-unresolved trauma that global society continues to grapple with as a result of the First World War, now nearly 105 years in our past. The fact that a film about this conflict still resonates so strongly in 2022-23 is itself proof of how central World War I is to the mess we've made of planet Earth in the past century and a half. The war is not ancient history. Far from it. Its ghastly shadow still stalks us today, in our politics, our institutions and our culture.
All Quiet began its life as a novel, begun in 1927, by German schoolteacher and military veteran Erich Maria Remarque. He sought to distill the brutal battlefield and trench experiences of the everyday German soldier, and he communicated brilliantly the terror, boredom, futility and moral chaos of the conflict, which marked an entire generation of young men in Europe born, as Remarque was, at the tail end of the 19th century. The novel was first published as a serial in the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung beginning in November 1928 and came out as a stand-alone book in January 1929. The book was an immediate sensation, with various segments of the German public both defending and attacking it passionately. Remarque wrote a sequel, The Road Back, in 1931. After his writings were suppressed by the Nazi regime, Remarque fled to Switzerland and eventually the United States. He died in 1970 after a long writing career, but never again achieved the success of All Quiet, his career- and life-defining work.
Though All Quiet has the universal reputation of being a ferociously anti-war piece of literature, at close view it's much more of a simple chronicle than it is a polemic or an argument. Except for the broad arc of the main character Paul's transition from school to military service, and his periodic encounters with the home front, the book is largely plotless. It simply serves up realistic depictions of life at the front: hungry soldiers constantly on the lookout for food, endless privations of trench conditions, the cheapening of human life and casualness of the sudden death of comrades, and a sense of alienation as to why the soldiers are there and what they're supposed to be accomplishing. That it comes off as anti-war is largely because it's impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to look at the experience of World War I and draw anything noble or productive out of it--with a few notable exceptions which I'll discuss in a moment. Ten million people dying in muddy trenches to achieve remarkably little in a political sense is hard to call a worthwhile experience. All Quiet is excellent at conveying that simple reality.
Not everyone took the war that way, however. Although most World War I literature written by its veterans or observers stresses the brutality and futility of the conflict, a small minority interpreted it differently. A curious analogue to All Quiet is the 1920 memoir The Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, a German officer during the war. Very much like Remarque, Jünger describes the trench and combat experiences dispassionately and without much commentary. Jünger's politics were notoriously difficult to pin down--he once stated he "hated democracy like the plague," yet insisted he didn't agree with the Nazis--but The Storm of Steel has been interpreted as portraying the war as transformative, revealing the inner strength (or weakness) of those who went through it. Germany's far right wing certainly liked this interpretation because it bolstered their ideology that the only thing meaningful in life was struggle. It's not surprising that the Nazis burned, banned and suppressed All Quiet when they came to power, and even earlier than that Nazi thugs attacked and disrupted cinemas where the 1930 film version was being shown. Fascists generally react crudely and badly to stuff they don't like. Of course they did not like All Quiet.
As for the films, they probably did even more than the novel did to popularize the bleak and brutal vision of World War I that most of us have today. The 1930 version is still utterly astounding, one of the best war pictures ever made. The lengthy trench attack sequence is, in my opinion, even more gripping and harrowing a depiction of combat than Spielberg's famous recreation of the D-Day landing at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. The 1930 All Quiet could not have been made even a few years later, once the censorious Hays Code descended on Hollywood and would have tempered its most powerful aspects. I have seen the 1979 television miniseries adaptation of All Quiet, which starred The Waltons heartthrob Richard Thomas as Paul. I recall it being passable, not great, but nothing so powerful as the 1930 version.
The 2022 version departs significantly from the book. It focuses on the late period of the war and mostly omits the home-front stuff that the original dwelled upon. Berger's version notably includes a subplot that tracks the development of the armistice in November 1918, which is nowhere in the book; in fact, in the novel, Paul is killed a month before the war ends. I found this material unnecessary, and mainly in the plot to set up a contrived conclusion that is even more super-duper ironic than Paul's fate in any of the previous versions. I'm not sure why Berger thought this twist was superior to what Remarque originally wrote, but whatever. I don't think the 2022 version is in the same league as the 1930 original. But it will succeed, I think, in demonstrating the horrors of World War I to a new generation, so I can't fault it.
One of the most significant impacts of the First World War was psychological and collective. In 1914 no one could conceive that such a grotesque and pointless catastrophe could come about in a world that thought of itself, before that time, as the most civilized, evolved and sophisticated society humanity had ever created. I talk about this theme a lot in my recent video essay on the meaning of the Titanic disaster. If modern civilization--science, technology, politics, economics, journalism, philosophy and culture--brought us to the level of chewing up 10 million people with machine gun bullets and leaving them to die in muddy gas-filled trenches for no justifiable reason, what the hell good is modern civilization? That question is equally relevant today. Our modern civilization seems hell-bent on destroying itself with human-caused global warming, if another brutal cycle of conflict arising from the resurgence of fascism doesn't finish us off first. We seem to have learned little in the past 105 years. And we still haven't recovered from the shock of what happened between 1914 and 1918. It's a wound the world inflicted on itself, and it continues to be beyond the capacity of modern thought to comprehend it fully.
There's a lot in World War I that's still highly relevant to our modern world. This is why All Quiet on the Western Front still matters. It gives us a lot of uncomfortable things to think about.
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