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'All Quiet On The Western Front' Highlights the Failures of '1917'

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | February 6, 2023 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | February 6, 2023 |


Here’s some Instagram-level wisdom for you: Losing can give you perspective. Shocking, right? There are different ways of losing and different scales of losing. When you lose on a Historical scale, which is almost always correlated to being defeated at war, that should be an opportunity for you, as a citizen and as a country, to take a step back and reflect on where you went wrong as a society, what kind of leaders you have allowed to rule you and which kind of values have you allowed to guide your state. Historically, that has never been the case, mostly because people were never allowed to question why their countries went to war. Fast-forward to this century, place yourself in what are, ostensibly, Modern Liberal Democracies, and you will see an entire mainstream culture that is as critical of its military culture as a Prussian career officer in the 18th Century.

Here’s another shocking discovery: The US and the UK are enmeshed in a militarized culture (the US orders of magnitude over the UK, but still), the lifeblood of its imperialist mindset. Their culture of militarism has been at the forefront of how to avoid dealing with the defeats they have been dealt. Over the last 50 years, their track record has been spotty: The stalemate in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are riding high on the three 20th Century victories that meant something: The Cold War and the two World Wars, the Second being our Culture’s definitive Good vs. Evil narrative. They won the World Wars in splendid fashion: The US’ population was barely scratched and the UK… well, they suffered more, but not in the scale Warsaw alone was annihilated. Since World War II was actually fought against tyranny, that gave their armed forces the legacy to excuse away all the body bags returning from Afghanistan: “The Ultimate Sacrifice to Protect Our Freedoms.” As for those injured or with PTSD, they can easily be hidden in the dying towns and housing projects they came from.

On the flipside, there is Germany, perhaps the most powerful country right now which was founded, in its current form, as a result of defeat. Perhaps no other country is more aware of how a culture of militarism will be its doom. Twice in a century and with barely a generation in-between, they lost the lion’s share of their young male population. The first time for absolute jackshit; the second time in the name of racism. Twice they were destroyed and, ever since, they might have actually learned something, they may be the only powerful country that actually stops to think over the morals of what they are doing to the rest of the world. The results are mixed at best, being pacifists at the wrong moment and selling weapons to the same wrong people. But there is a culture of examining the horrors of the past, with a history school curriculum that makes those of deep-blue school boards in California pale in comparison.

When Erich Maria Remarque wrote All Quiet on the Western Front, during the existential disaster of 1920s Germany, I am confident their school system didn’t have a curriculum dedicated to examining how their history of militarism led them to the disaster of The Great War. Probably, the children were still being taught by the same old farts that pressured the previous generation to enlist, old farts that were convinced that Germany should’ve pushed further. Remarque’s novel (an immediate Global phenomenon) managed to survive the second downfall of Germany in anticipation of a time when readers might actually pay attention. All Quiet… the novel still WORKS, it still HITS you, and not because of the “timelessness” cliché, but because of how thoroughly modern it still is. Remarque, in using the first-person voice of private Paul Bäumer, wrote with such honesty about his and his generation’s experiences that the narration and introspection are enough of a subtext, it almost feels like you could replace Paul Bäumer with a Paul Bryant in Afghanistan, and the story would ring just as powerfully and true. Its film adaptations, in one of those industry miracles, are just as successful.

I don’t want to delve deeper into comparing 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front and 2022’s Im Westen nichts Neues, the first German-language adaptation of the novel, because it’s been a few months since the latter’s release and it has been done by very talented film critics already. But in short, I really liked both of them, but I think the version from 1930 is slightly superior.

Directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Lew Ayres as Bäumer, I’m in awe that such a visually striking and intelligent adaptation was produced, in the Hollywood Studio System, in such a short time from the novel’s release. As a pre-code film, the horrors of the war are explicit but also capture the moments of waiting and tedium that make up most of the novel. It is hampered by the actors very … Mid-Atlantic mannerisms, as to be expected. However, Milestone’s most sensitive decision was to eschew an orchestral soundtrack, something the studio ignored at first, but was restored in successive releases. You just know that any other director would’ve filled the frame with schmaltzy violins at every tragic moment. Milestone, instead, lets the images (and the battle sounds) speak for themselves.

All Quiet… 2022 benefits from the naturalistic performances of its ensemble (starring Felix Kammerer). It is also a poetic, strikingly beautiful film, but in the same way Goya’s Black Paintings or Hieronymus Bosch are so. In fact, some shots are straight out of Bosch’s hells. Director Edward Berger manages to go further than Milestone in transforming Remarque’s internal monologues into visual motiffs or short exchanges between the characters. Its biggest flaw, however, is the lengthy subplot covering the armistice negotiations starring Daniel Brühl as the diplomat Matthias Erzberger. It works at times, but it eats away at story of the soldiers. In particular, they eschew a key chapter in which Bäumer visits his hometown on leave, which is necessary to further depict how these young men were taken away from normal life and how out of touch were the senior adults.

But overall, both adaptations are successful as punishing, mandatory anti-war films. The kind of films that must be part of school curriculums. The kind of films that will terrify autocrats. It is perhaps because its eminently a German story (and that Lewis Milestone was a Russian-Jewish immigrant), that they succeed where other supposedly anti-war films set in The Great War fail. In particular, All Quiet … evidences the failure of 1917 (perhaps the most popular film about World War I ever), because it’s still a story told by and about the winning side.

1917 fails not just because of its “one-take” gimmick, turning the immobility of the trench warfare into an action-packed spectacle. All war movies have to thread carefully with the spectacle of combat, more so anti-war ones. 1917 fails because its gimmick and set-up provide the characters with an adventure, and Adventure is the core selling point and the biggest con that a militarized society offers to prospective recruits.

I believe Sam Mendes actually wanted to make an anti-war film, a tribute to his grandfather’s sacrifice. The problem is, within the UK’s and the US’ National Mythology, the sacrifice of World War I was worth it, because they won. In 1917, George MacKay’s character succeeds in his mission too, despite losing his best friend and his growing PTSD. 1917 is, despite its own intentions, the only story that the winning side can write, one that is unable to actually interrogate the discourses that justified that war, because those discourses won. It can examine an individual tragedy, but it cannot accept the fact that it was all due to pointlessness upon pointlessness. And that even the one unquestionable war, the Second World War, was just the outcome of the pointless bad decisions, cruelty and moral failures of the countries that eventually would win. See The US and the Holocaust for just one angle.

The Anglo World’s militaristic culture demands that the soldiers are portrayed as dignified, but that has nothing to do with showing mangled body parts or shot-off faces. All Quiet… dares to show its characters being petty, filthy, stealing livestock from the occupied locals, being reduced to animal behavior because they know damn well they might not survive tomorrow. For real, not like US Forces tell themselves in their secluded FOBs.

In the 70s, US Films managed to do something like All Quiet… with the Vietnam War. But in-between Reagan, Rambo, and the First Gulf War, it seems the US lost any willingness to see themselves from the losing side. Don’t even get me started on how the UK avoids discussing its Colonial Wars. Question is, how much do these Empires need to lose to examine their own militaristic obsession?

Here are two great YouTube essays on 2022’s All Quiet… I used for reference.

Alberto Cox knows he skipped an TV adaptation from 1979, which is apparently pretty great too.