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Dan Webster reviews " All Quiet on the Western Front"

No two war films are exactly alike. And this is especially true when politics get involved.

John Wayne’s film “The Green Berets” offers a far different view of the Vietnam War than, say, that of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” and – maybe even most of all – John Irvin’s “Hamburger Hill.”

Wayne’s flag-waving attitude has much more in common with the Tom Cruise vehicle “Top Gun: Maverick,” one of the two 2022 war films that are up for Best Picture Oscars.

The other nominee, the German-language Netflix production “All Quiet on the Western Front,” waves a flag as well. But if anything, that flag is drenched in gore – which is hardly surprising, considering that it’s adapted from the 1929 novel by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque.

Himself a veteran of World War I, Remarque was mainly interested in capturing the experiences of soldiers sent to fight by those who preach notions of patriotic glory. Such idealism, however, is soon shattered by the actual, horrific nature of trench fighting: the daily slog through ankle-deep water, the obsessive and ongoing search for something to eat, constant artillery bombardments, and the ever-present threat of calls to charge across no man’s land in the face of murderous machine-gun fire.

First adapted as a film in 1930, that production – starring Lew Ayres – would win Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director for Lewis Milestone. A made-for-TV version would follow in 1979, starring Richard Thomas. And now we have the Neflix film, directed and co-written by Edward Berger.

Felix Kammerer stars as Paul Baumer, a 17-year-old whom we meet as he is being encouraged by his schoolmates to join the army. It is 1917, the war is already three years old and either no one in Paul’s school is aware of it, or more likely is willing to admit it, the war is at a standstill. For some time, the Germans have been, and will continue, fighting against their enemies (who, in Remarque’s version, are exclusively French) back and forth over the same few hundred yards of land. But the Americans are just now arriving, an eventuality that – as history tells us – will shift the balance of power in France’s favor.

Kammerer dramatizes this by shifting his point of view from the trenches to the negotiating table, with the actor Daniel Brühl playing a German diplomat tasked with suing the French for peace. Meanwhile, the commander of Paul’s battalion is intent on striking one last blow, even if the war’s end is imminent.

Yet it is back to those trenches that Berger, a craftsman in both his use of visuals as well as in thematic irony, always returns us. That craft in both senses is present from the film’s first few scenes, as we watch a portrait of natural beauty morph into a field of corpses – and we see a young man, caught in combat frenzy, charging into battle. Almost immediately, Berger shows that same man’s uniform – he now being clearly dead – washed, darned and repurposed so that it can be issued to our protagonist Paul.

Then it begins. With only the barest of training, Paul and his mates are marched to the front, where the slaughter is in progress. Artillery shells blow bodies to bits, bunkers collapse on top of soldiers trying in vain to find cover, and one by one those around Paul begin to die. When called on to rise out of the trenches to attack, the soldiers respond – even when it becomes clear that the results, even the victories, are merely temporary – and ultimately in vain.

This modern take on “All Quiet on the Western Front” isn’t all about battle. Berger does give us scenes in which Paul and his fellow soldiers rest behind the lines – stealing poultry from local farmers, flirting with girls, and simply talking about the lives they hope to live when the war ends.

But gradually, even as the countdown to the Armistice reaches its final minutes, and the body count continues to rise, the last vestiges of all that hope drains away. And Remarque’s point about the true, stupid cruelty of war – made nearly a century ago – becomes all too clear. If he were alive today to address, say, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Remarque might wave a virtual flag bearing an equally sobering message: Some things never change.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

"Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for Spokane7.com.