It's the first non-English-language adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war novel "All Quiet on the Western Front." German director Edward Berger took it upon himself to venture a German interpretation that launched internationally on Netflix in October 2022.
Some critics have praised the remake as a successful anti-war drama, while others have criticized the director for inventing new storylines and omitting characters and crucial scenes.
Nonetheless, "All Quiet on the Western Front" is already receiving top film prizes. On Sunday, it took home seven British Academy Film (BAFTA) awards including best picture, best screenplay, best non-English-language film and best director.
The film is also among the favorites at the Academy Awards on March 12, and the BAFTAs are considered important indicators of win possibilities at the Hollywood event. "All Quiet on the Western Front" has been nominated in nine Oscar categories including best picture and best international feature, as well as best cinematography, production design, visual effects, sound, makeup and hairstyling, original score and adapted screenplay.
"All Quiet on the Western Front" is nominated for 9 Oscars. Director Edward Berger told us his motivation behind making a historical war film from a German perspective. #Oscars2023 pic.twitter.com/b4QbQXvR8D— DW Culture (@dw_culture) January 24, 2023
'More topical than ever'
Remarque's novel, published in 1929, paints a portrait of a generation that leaves school for the front and ends up perishing in World War I from 1914 to 1918.
Berger told DW that the subject remains relevant over 100 years after the war, with growing populism and nationalism making the movie eerily topical.
Three years ago, when Berger started working on the film, he was incredibly worried by political developments in Europe and the world, he said.
"There was Brexit in the UK, we had a right-wing government in Hungary, and a rising far right in France and Germany and many countries around Europe," he said. "Suddenly, institutions that brought us peace for 70 years, like the EU, were being questioned."
Berger, who lives in Berlin, was shocked by the hate speech he was hearing from governments. "That speech trickles down to the streets," he said. "I heard sentences in the subway, going to work, sentences that you feel like that almost sounded like from the 1930s in Germany, like: 'We should put Angela Merkel up against the wall.'"
This resurgence of populism and nationalism motivated Berger to take on the film. "I felt that it would be a good time to make a movie that reminded us that, before World War I, it wasn't that different. I thought these were times we would never come back to," he said.
Published in Germany in 1929, Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" was one of the greatest successes in German literary history. It was based on the author's own experiences as a soldier in the war. In 1930, the work was made into a movie for the first time in the United States and won two Oscars, including the award for best picture. A second adaptation followed in 1979. Berger's film is the first German adaptation of the book.
"In American war films or British war films, there are heroes, which is something that comes from the history — that America was roped into the war, England defended themselves," Berger said. "So that leaves a very different legacy among the people and among the filmmakers that grow up there."
In Germany, Berger said, it's different. "I feel like, in a German war film, you can't have heroes and the death of the enemy," he said. "Another soldier is always a death. There's nothing heroic; there's nothing good about it."
Retelling the story
Berger is not concerned about the criticism that his film, unlike its 1930 and 1979 predecessors, is only loosely based on the novel.
"Remarque himself once said: 'A book is a book. And when it's made into a film, it's a new medium,'" Berger said. He feels filmmakers can and should take liberties, and he acknowledges that his film is a new interpretation. "World War I was more than 100 years ago," he said. "We have a very different perspective on it today."
Of course, Berger and his team tried to follow the plot and characters of the novel as closely as possible. But the director was primarily interested in putting the internal conflicts of the main character, Paul Bäumer, front and center.
"This young man goes into war with enthusiasm, and he feels like he's going to be a hero with innocence, with youth," Berger said. "And, very quickly, he realizes that all his ideals, all what he's learned as a child growing up in Germany are worth nothing."
Indeed, the protagonist becomes increasingly brutal over the course of the film, transforming from enthusiastic new recruit to war-traumatized soldier.
Berger stays true to the "lost generation" theme of Remarque's book, which in the preface reads that it "will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."
New storyline with Daniel Brühl
The director and his team have also added a new plotline to the story in which German actor Daniel Brühl plays politician Matthias Erzberger. With this addition, the director illustrates the bureaucratic absurdity of the war — in which elite bureaucrats and warmongering military commanders determine the fate and deaths of countless soldiers on battlefields while sitting at their desks — and places the events in a historical context.
Erzberger, who signed the armistice between Germany and the Allied Powers after the abdication of the German emperor in 1918, is a very important figure in German history for Berger. "So now we have that privilege of knowing where the signing of this peace treaty led to — that the military used him as a scapegoat and blamed him for losing the war," he said.
Erzberger was assassinated by nationalists two years after the war ended.
The armistice negotiations shown in the film demonstrate that the conflict continued to smolder after the war ended.
World War I, Berger said, was only the beginning. "Seventeen million soldiers lost their lives. And only 15 years later, the insanity got even worse," Berger said, referring to World War II.
This article was originally written in German, with the interview conducted in English. It was updated on January 24 with the news of the Academy Awards nominations and on February 20 with BAFTA wins.