Remaking an Oscar-winning film is a risky business. Why tamper with success?
But when German director Edward Berger decided to remake Lewis Milestone’s 1930 epic “All Quiet on the Western Front” for Netflix (which is now streaming), he was determined to tell the futile (and fatal) story of a 17-year-old World War I German conscript from a German perspective.
That mission was rewarded this week, when the German-language film was nominated for 14 British Academy Film Awards, including one for best director.
According to Berger, whenever American or British directors make war films, it is impossible to avoid allowing well-earned heroism to seep into such efforts, befitting their victors’ point of view.
As a result, Berger wanted to tie his “All Quiet” to the national yoke of loss and shame that many Germans bear.
“As a German, there is nothing to be proud of in that period of history. “There is only guilt, terror, horror, and a profound sense of responsibility to the past,” Berger, 52, says. “It’s in me. That’s in my children.”
As a result, one of the most harrowing and soul-crushing depictions of warfare to ever grace the big screen. It has the breathtaking battle sequences of “Saving Private Ryan,” the gruesome trench warfare of “1917,” and the exploration of quieter moments in soldiers’ lives seen in “Saving Private Ryan.” “The movie “Apocalypse Now.”
Despite their nearly 100-year age difference, both film adaptations of Erich Maria Remarque’s enduring 1929 novel are echoes of each other, owing to their reliance on the book.
Young men are drawn into battle by passionate speeches; the brutal reality of battle quickly sinks in as they scrounge for food and watch each other die; Paul, the protagonist played by a haunting Felix Kammerer, kills a Frenchman in hand-to-hand combat and immediately regrets it; and there is only ignominious defeat in the end.
Given the tenor of the times, Berger’s version takes on a new level of poignancy and even urgency.
It does so first by focusing on how adults spouting nationalist dogma turned young German boys into cannon fodder, and then on how Germany’s capitulation at the end of World War I – and the sense of shame in defeat stoked by politicians – gave rise to Nazism and, ultimately, World War II.
Berger sees this as a lesson for all of us in 2022.
“I’m sensitive to nationalist movements, so with the rise of Trump and Brexit, as well as the far right in Hungary and Italy, it’s important to remember that all of this led to a disaster 100 years ago,” he says.
The armistice signed by Germany and France to end World War I, in particular, immediately generated feelings of shame and anger among German army officers, feelings that would fester into full-fledged vengeance in the form of Hitler’s populist rise.
As a result, Berger’s “All Quiet” deviates significantly from the book and the 1930 film in that it includes many scenes of German politicians deciding to surrender while their military counterparts fume. The director is optimistic but realistic about the reception of his central message.
“Whether the film’s anti-war sentiment resonates with viewers is up to them,” he says.
Two Brits from Los Angeles played key roles in bringing Netflix’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to life.
With its deft camerawork, solid performances, and stirring-for-its-time visuals, the original “All Quiet” holds up remarkably well. The film received two Academy Awards: best picture and best director.
Berger, on the other hand, was able to add a new level of lyricism and terror to his version that could only be delivered by modern technology – and a healthy (though undisclosed) Netflix budget.
“The budget was probably less than what you think it was,” Berger laughs. “But it was all about doing everything we could to get the camera as close to Paul as possible. I’m in the mud. In the thick of it. “With the death.”
Aside from Berger’s talent, this “All Quiet” would never have made it to the big screen if it hadn’t been for the Los Angeles-based British writing and producing team of Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson, who bought the rights to the novel in 2006 and have been waiting 16 years to adapt it.
“The timing had to be right for this to happen, and it finally was. “We had a German director to do this story justice and a streamer (Netflix) willing to back it financially,” Paterson says, adding that the pandemic helped push foreign filmmaking to the forefront, as evidenced by South Korea’s “Parasite” Oscar win in 2020.
Despite the fact that the film is in German with subtitles, the screenwriters, who co-wrote it with Berger, have expressed no concern that this will turn off American audiences.
“This novel is still taught in American schools, and people don’t mind subtitles when they want to see something good,” Paterson says.
Beyond any particularly powerful dialogue, Stokell says he hopes what really hits home is “that sense of betrayal of these young kids by those in power, something you can see happening right now in terms of what Russian leaders are telling the soldiers heading off to Ukraine.”
The Western Front, where 3 million people died, was never quiet.
Paterson came up with a particularly powerful scene in the new film while training for yet another triathlon (she’s a multiple world champion in the Xterra series). We see rows and rows of women washing a mountain of bloody uniforms before handing them back to a new group of eager recruits in the brief but powerful sequence.
The western front, where Germany hoped to break through and conquer France, was never calm. It also never moved much because neither side gained much ground. Over the course of several years, approximately 3 million young men died there.
As an Austrian, Kammerer feels “especially responsible for retelling that grim part of history,” given that Austria’s quick engulfment in the Third Reich helped set the stage for future takeovers.
“My hope is that younger viewers, in particular, will be drawn into the narrative of this absurd and brutal period in our history, and will begin to think about violence, war, and humanity in new ways, allowing them to reimagine a world in which the horrors of war will become a bitter relic of the past,” he says.
“However, first,” he adds, “We must witness the atrocities in order to overcome them.”
Berger’s adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front” provides just such a front-row seat, conjuring up senseless horrors that one would only want to witness in a movie theatre.