20th Century Horrors Meet 21st Century Cinematics

“Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly.” – T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

It is a quiet night. Fingers of fog caress the tips of the pine trees, and foxes snuggle warm in their dens, safe from the rain outside. The only hint of trouble is the distant thunder of artillery, whose explosions pierce the dark sky with bursts of orange light.

Cut to a frozen field littered with bloody corpses. The camera zooms in, then leads us across no-man’s-land to a trench bursting with manic activity. Men surge over the top and race to reach the enemy trench as bullets zip through the air around them. We see one man in particular—a boy, really—stumble across the wasteland, shooting his rifle through panicked, heaving sobs. Out of ammunition, he grabs his sharpened spade and, still crying, plunges it into the chest of the nearest enemy.

Cut again, to the boy’s bruised, bloody face peeking from a heap of dead bodies. His uniform is stripped, bagged, cleaned, and patched with industrial efficiency, and handed off to a new bright-eyed recruit, our protagonist Paul Bäumer. Noticing the previous owner’s name tag, Paul thinks there’s been some mistake. The recruiter assures him with a thin smile, “It must’ve been too small for the fellow. Happens all the time.” Paul happily acquiesces, and hurries to join his friends as they suit up for what they think will be a glorious adventure.

Thus begins Edward Berger’s All Quiet on The Western Front, a two-and-a-half hour long montage of inhuman brutality, horrific suffering, and senseless tragedy. Released in October 2022, this is the latest film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel by the same name. The story follows a group of 17-year-old German boys who volunteer to join the army during the First World War, goaded by their sense of honor and national pride. However, it takes only moments on the front lines for the boys to become disillusioned as the full barbarity of trench warfare sinks in. Before long, all hope of glory is forgotten, and the boys’ only goal is to survive. 

Berger unflinchingly portrays the horrors of war. Men liquefied by a mortar shell exploding at their feet, callously burned alive by flamethrowers as they kneel begging for mercy, or slowly crushed, screaming with terror and pain as a tank rolls over their abdomen, are all rendered in high-resolution, ultra-realistic color. This is to say nothing of the fractured skulls, missing limbs, and bloody bullet holes which are ubiquitous throughout the film. 

That said, Berger does not wallow in violence for its own sake. His focus is always on the human emotions of the soldiers, and that is also where he draws our attention. Berger ensures this with frequent close-up shots and camera movements which follow the soldiers themselves. We are made to feel like we are sitting, walking, watching together with the men on screen. When a group of soldiers are trapped in a bunker, the camera sits with them at eye-level, panning frantically around just as each terrified soldier’s eyes flicker from one person to the next. While Paul dares to hope he can carry his wounded friend to safety — it’s only a shot to the abdomen, he’ll be alright — we hope with him, and when the doctor says there’s nothing he can do, the man is dead, we are similarly shocked. How could such a small wound be fatal? Lead poisoning, the doctor explains. 

Most of all, Berger shows the callousness of politicians who insisted on continuing their brutal war of attrition.  The German title of Marque’s novel, Im Westen nichts Neues (literally, “Nothing New in The West”), hints at the meaninglessness of the conflict, the senselessness of sending so many men to die for so little gain. Most reports from the front to headquarters could be summarized as, “Thousands have died, the lines have not moved.” Nothing new, from the perspective of military commanders. Everything has changed, from the perspective of wives widowed, children orphaned, and sons maimed for life. Berger captures this mad irony by juxtaposing the opulent lives of generals and politicians to the miserable conditions of their soldiers. As Paul steals chickens to survive on the front, his general tastes three different types of wine while throwing chicken wings to his dog.  

The film concludes as it began: a wide-angle shot of the mountains, fog curling around the tops of the trees in the valley below, not a human soul in sight. Nothing new in the West. Every character has died, but who is left to care? Nature goes on unchanged, apathetic to the petty affairs of men. They don’t feel petty while we watch them. The film runs for less than two minutes before plunging us into the horrors of the trenches, and for two and a half hours, we cry and laugh and scream with the characters as they experience every human emotion with excruciating, unbearable intensity. But then we are drawn out to observe from a distance, and ask with the mountains and the trees and the fog, “What difference did any of this make?” There is no answer. All is quiet. And yet, perhaps it is precisely in the silence that Berger leaves us a whisper of hope. In this last shot, unlike the opening, there is no artillery fire in the distance. At last, there is something new in the West. For the first time in years, it is mercifully, peacefully quiet. 

Jack McEnery is a Junior PLS major with digital marketing and theology minors living in Alumni Hall. He can usually be found reading in the PLS lounge while consuming copious quantities of caffeine and is quite comfortable collecting questions, concerns, or chocolate chip cookies from anyone. You can email him at cmcenery@nd.edu (especially if you have chocolate chip cookies).

Photo Credit: Kelsey Stefanson, flixpatrol