On War and Cranberries
A Review Of All Quiet On The Western Front
The most recent cinematic interpretation of All Quiet On The Western Front can be viewed on Netflix.
**This review contains spoilers for both the film and the book**
Every year, around the first of November, I pick up a copy of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front with the goal to finish it before Veteran's Day. The novel has been one of my favorite reads since it was first assigned to me in a high school class. I have missed a few years since then, but I have read this book at least half a dozen times. This year, I started All Quiet early so that I could have it read before the release of a new Netflix film of the same name. What follows is a synopsis of both the book and the film and my reflections on what each of these works has to say.
And the violence caused such silence Who are we mistaken?
A War Novel To End All Wars
Few works of literature have had the same lasting impact as All Quiet on the Western Front. In the genre of war fiction, Erich Maria Remarque's masterpiece stands well above its peers. The book was first published in Germany in 1929 and was an immediate national best-seller. It was then translated into almost two dozen languages and sold over 2.5 million copies in 18 months. Within a year of its release, Hollywood had produced an Oscar-award-winning film based on the novel.
Despite its success, All Quiet was not without controversy. Its unwavering anti-war stance received scrutiny from the growing National Socialist party in Germany. By 1932, the author would have his German citizenship revoked and be forced into exile. His books were deemed unpatriotic and banned across Germany and in 3 other fascist nations. Remarque would remain an active writer until his death in 1970, but none of his later works achieved the same level of acclaim and criticism as All Quiet on the Western Front.
The book follows the war experiences of the fictional private Paul Baumer and his companions in the 2nd Company fighting on the front lines in France during World War I. Most of those he fights alongside are boys: 17 or 18-year-olds who were pushed into enlisting in the German army by zealous school teachers and peer pressure. French shells and trench warfare soon shatter their youthful romantic notions of combat. Paul and his fellow soldiers come together and bond through battle and misadventure. They keep each other alive as long as possible while trying to bring any small comfort to their miserable predicament. The timeline of the novel is somewhat vague but the events most likely cover about a year's time before the war's end. Like Paul, the reader develops a liking for each supporting character over the course of the book. While Remarque develops his characters briskly, even the least described is a lively addition to the novel. Unfortunately, this makes the demise of each of these men all the more harrowing.
All Quiet on the Western Front refuses to shy away from any of the gritty details of the war but does so without being gratuitous. It was this characteristic and the pacifist themes of Remarque's work that earned him praise from so many among the lost generation. In many ways, All Quiet on the Western Front is autobiographical and the reader can sense that Erich Maria Remarque had to write this book. The message at the center of his story, that war is hell and fought by the wrong people, cries out to the reader with desperation. The shouts of the dying that Remarque heard while huddled in trenches are contained within these pages. One can only imagine the anguish that Remarque may have endured as he revisited his wartime experience in order to write this novel.
Every detail described seems to pull one to the front. The prose is crisp even though the book is almost 100 years old. Remarque's style is reminiscent of his contemporaries- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck, but cuts straight to the point. There is little confusion about what Remarque wanted to communicate with each passage. However, every time I revisit his work I encounter new revelations. While it is first and foremost an anti-war novel, there is still much said about more universal themes throughout the book.
A War Movie to End All Wars
Netflix's recent interpretation of All Quiet on the Western Front is the third cinematic foray into Remarque's iconic work. The first was the Academy Award-winning production released in 1930. There was also a made-for-television edition in 1979 that met equal critical acclaim. The first two movies follow the book's material faithfully, but the 2022 release bears little resemblance to the original work. However, the film only strays away to make Remarque's anti-war treatise clear to its 21st-century audience.
The fact that Netflix's version is the first German production of All Quiet on the Western Front should also not be missed. The Nazi party routinely sabotaged and protested viewings of the original film before outright banning it in the mid-thirties. Now, one hundred years later, Germany produced a movie that communicates Remarque's central theme better than the American and British versions ever could.
Like the book, the 2022 film follows private Paul Baumer and many of the same supporting characters to the front lines, but the movie cast is smaller than that of the book. The timeline is also condensed and every event portrayed occurs out of the order given in the novel. Remarque took great pains to develop camaraderie between Baumer and his fellow soldiers in order to convey the horror of losing one's friends in combat. Each loss of life in the book bleeds a drop of humanity back into the crushing statistics of World War I. In contrast, the film kills fast and without mercy, but this technique is equal to the book in creating the desired effect.
The two biggest differences between the newest version of All Quiet and the previous editions are the inclusion of the political negotiations to end the War, and the final battles fought before the armistice took effect. The bold decision to depart from the source material in order to include these two events should be applauded rather than criticized. While it takes dramatic liberties with the source material the movie stays true to the spirit of the written word. The book only hints at the politics behind World War I, but the movie spends about a third of its time bringing the viewer into the drama of both sides agreeing to an armistice. The audience is left astonished that so few leaders (barely enough to fill a train car) were in control of the fates of thousands of men and dozens of nations. These scenes craft a pacifist message with tremendous effect.
The plot of the book ends almost one month before the movie cuts its final scene. Readers with a cursory knowledge of history will know that Private Paul Baumer met his literary demise only a few weeks before the end of the war. Remarque wisely closes the book as if World War I continues to this day. Unlike the book, the movie does not rely on the audience's historical knowledge in order to convey Baumer's tragic end; instead, he perishes just after the cease-fire orders are given. This is another example of liberty taken by the filmmakers to maximize effect. Baumer's life was wasted because of the pride of his superior officer. This microcosm exemplifies the sad reality of war: the ambitions of one man (or a few men) kill many more.
The film subverts the common assumption that WWI abruptly ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Armistice Day. In reality, November 11, 1918, was just as bloody as the rest of the war and there were as many casualties in the last hours of WWI as there were on D-Day in WWII. The last-ditch assault that Baumer participates in at the end of the film was a typical reaction on both sides of the front lines and not the exception.
...they're still fighting With their tanks and their bombs And their bombs and their guns In your head, in your head, they are dying
All Quiet On the Western Front is a book that I have read more than any other work of fiction. It is difficult to say that it is my favorite novel because of its subject matter, but this book continues to deliver every year that I read it. It feels like opening a new book each time I pull it down from the shelf. For most years it has mainly served as a reminder of the sacrifices of veterans of past wars. Putting myself in such a melancholic headspace just before veterans day was one of my initial motivations for beginning my annual reading practice. Reading the book has also been an effective way to maintain an objective stance on war and foreign policy. Experiencing both the film and novel seem to carry even more impact as the world appears to be approaching another global conflict.
One of the more subtle themes in All Quiet on the Western Front is the generational impact of war and violence. Several scenes in the movie do a better job of relaying this than the book does, but the message is present in both mediums. In many ways, we are still sorting out the consequences of World War I and its sequel to this day. Now the world watches as we approach another large-scale conflict primed to repeat the horrors of the past.
When the Violence Causes Silence...
Throughout my experience this fall with All Quiet on the Western Front the lyrics to the song Zombie reverberated in my head. Released in 1994 by the Irish rock band the Cranberries, the song captures the feelings I was left with by the end of both the book and the movie. The Cranberries' lead singer and songwriter Dolores O'Riordan was inspired to pen the song after a bombing in England that killed two young children. She described the song as a "cry against man's inhumanity to man; and man's inhumanity to child."
The sonic structure of the song alternates between calm and chaotic. The verses accompany a low groove and an unsteady chord progression. The chorus crescendos into distorted guitar riffs and crashing drum beats over which O’Rioridan screams the song title, "Zombie." After both times the chorus is repeated the music returns to the melody of the verse. This structure can symbolize history’s cycle of peace and war: A violent conflict followed by an unstable peace that builds until another conflict breaks out. Then, the vocals cease, and the music winds down before ending with a final drum hit that is reminiscent of a gunshot.
It is an ambiguous end to an otherwise straightforward song, but an end that is, in a strange way, hopeful. The violence represented by the loud chorus of the song does not have to be repeated. Maybe the song asks if man’s deadly cycle can be broken. It is a question we are all asking at this point in world history: can war be avoided? Can war come to a close how a song comes to its ultimate rest? How a movie rolls its credits? How a book ends with one last period? Perhaps. Maybe one day there can finally be silence. That all can be quiet on every front.
Corey D. Evans received no financial compensation in exchange for giving this review. You can watch All Quiet on the Western Front exclusively on Netflix. You may also purchase your own copy of E emarque's novel here.