In 1929, World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque wrote a novel that came to be known as All Quiet on the Western Front. The protagonist, Paul Bäumer, along with all his friends, is lured into volunteering to join the German army by their teacher, who exhorts them show their patriotism by fighting in World War I. The trench warfare is ugly. When Paul visits home on leave, he realizes that the patriotic civilians he encounters have no idea what the war is really like. Back on the front lines, Paul injures an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat and watches him die over a period of hours. Paul is haunted by this experience and asks forgiveness from the dead man. Paul, himself, is killed as the war nears its end. The novel became a best-seller around the world. When the Nazis took power in Germany, Remarque’s novel was banned and burned on the grounds that it was anti-war and anti-patriotism.
A film, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Lew Ayres, was faithful to the novel. It was released in 1930 and won the Motion Picture Academy’s best picture award. Even before the Nazis came to power, their supporters attacked audience members at showings, blaming Jews for the film. The uncensored Hollywood film was not released in Germany until 1952. In the 1930 film version, when Paul goes home on leave, he returns to his old schoolroom and reveals to the students his disillusionment with the war. They call him a coward. As in the novel, Paul is shot to death by a sniper as the war nears its end.
For the 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front, director Edward Berger and co-writers Ian Stockell and Lesley Paterson have appropriated the title and dumped the plot. The horror of trench warfare is well-portrayed, but the important warning against blind patriotism is reduced to a single bad-guy general. In its place are such additions to the plot as the armistice negotiations between the Germans and the French, sex with French women, suicide and our “heroes” stealing from innocent French farmers.
Admirers of the Remarque novel and the Milestone film will most likely be disappointed by Berger’s version. Academy voters, on the other hand, have fallen all over themselves with praise, giving it nominations in nine categories, including Best Picture, which made it the overwhelming favorite in the Best International Film category. This is too bad because there are many better international films, including all four of the other nominees, as well as such non-nominees as Cairo Conspiracy from Sweden, War Sailor from Norway, Aurora’s Sunrise from Armenia and Victim from Slovakia.