Why remake a 92-year-old Oscar-winning movie? 'All Quiet on the Western Front' director explains
Remaking an Oscar-winning movie is a dicey proposition. Why mess with success?
But when German director Edward Berger decided to redo Lewis Milestone’s 1930 epic “All Quiet on the Western Front” for Netflix (streaming now), he was on a mission to tell the futile (and fatal) tale of a 17-year-old World War I German conscript from a German point of view.
That risky mission has been rewarded with seven British Academy Film Awards (out of 14 nominations), including best film, director and adapted screenplay. That makes the German-language film even more of a favorite for the upcoming Oscars, where "All Quiet" has nine nominations, including best picture and adapted screenplay.
Berger's reasons for remaking the movie were simple. As he saw it, whenever American or British directors make war movies, it is impossible to avoid letting well-earned heroism seep into such efforts, befitting their victors' point of view.
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As a result, Berger wanted to anchor his "All Quiet" to the national yoke of loss and shame that burdens many Germans.
“When it comes to both world wars, as a German there is nothing to be proud of in that part of history. There’s only guilt, terror, horror and a deep sense of responsibility to the past,” says Berger. “That’s in me. That’s in my kids.”
The result is possibly one of the most searing and soul-crushing depictions of warfare that has ever muddied the screen. It has the staggering battle sequences of “Saving Private Ryan,” the gruesome trench warfare of “1917” and the exploration of quieter moments in soldiers' lives seen in "Apocalypse Now.”
Despite their nearly 100-year gap, both movie versions of Erich Maria Remarque’s enduring 1929 novel are echoes of each other, largely because of their reliance on the book.
Young men are lured into battle by passionate speeches; the brutal reality of battle sinks in quickly 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 in the end, there is only ignominious defeat.
But Berger's version reaches a new level of poignancy and even urgency given the tenor of the times.
It does so first by focusing on the way in which young German boys were turned into cannon fodder by adults spouting nationalist dogma, and secondly by spotlighting how Germany’s capitulation at the end of World War I – and the sense of shame in defeat stoked by politicians – gave rise years later to Nazism and ultimately World War II.
In that, says Berger, is a lesson for us all.
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“I’m sensitive to nationalist movements, so with the rise of Trump and Brexit and the far right in Hungary and Italy, it’s important to remember that 100 years ago, this all led us to a catastrophe,” he says.
Specifically, the armistice signed between Germany and France to end World War I immediately generated feelings of shame and anger among German army officers, sentiments that would fester into full-blown revenge in the form of Hitler's populist rise.
As a result, Berger's "All Quiet" notably departs from the book and the 1930 film to include many scenes showing German politicians deciding to surrender while their military counterparts fume. The director is hopeful yet realistic about whether his central message will be received.
"Whether the anti-war sentiment of the movie lands, that's up to the viewers to decide," he says.
Two Brits from LA were instrumental in bringing Netflix's 'All Quiet on the Western Front' to life
The original “All Quiet” holds up remarkably well, with its deft camerawork, solid performances and stirring-for-its time visuals. The film won two Oscars, for best picture and best director.
But Berger was able to bring a new level of both lyricism and terror to his version that could only be delivered by modern technology – and a healthy (though undisclosed) Netflix budget.
“The budget was likely less than what you think it was,” says Berger with a laugh. “But it was all about doing what we could to put the camera right there next to Paul as much as we could. In the mud. In the trenches. With death.”
Berger’s skill aside, this “All Quiet” would never have made it to the screen if it weren't for 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 waited 16 years to bring it to the screen.
“The timing had to be right to make this, and finally it was. We had a German director to do this story justice and a streamer (Netflix) that was willing to back it financially,” says Paterson, who adds that the pandemic helped push foreign moviemaking to the forefront as evidenced by the 2020 Oscar win for South Korea’s “Parasite.”
Although the film is in German with subtitles, the screenwriters, who share that credit with Berger, expressed no concern that this will put off American viewers.
“This novel is still taught in American schools, and people are fine with subtitles when they want to see something good,” says Paterson.
Stokell says that beyond any particularly powerful dialogue, he hopes that 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.”
Things were never quiet on the Western front, where 3 million died
The new movie offers a particularly powerful moment that Paterson came up with while training for yet another triathlon (she’s a multiple world champion in the Xterra series). In the brief but powerful sequence, we see rows and rows of women wordlessly washing a mountain of bloody uniforms only to hand them back to a new group of eager recruits.
The western front – where Germany was hoping to break through in order to conquer France – was never quiet. It also never moved much, as neither side gained significant ground. Over multiple years, some 3 million young men died there.
Kammerer says as an Austrian he feels “especially responsible for retelling that grim part of history,” given that Austria’s quick envelopment into the Third Reich help set the stage for more takeovers to come.
“My hope is that especially younger viewers are drawn into the narrative of this absurd and brutal part of our history, and can start thinking about violence, war and humankind in different ways, helping them reimagine a world in which the horrors of war could become a bitter relic of the past,” he says.
“But first,” he adds, "we have to see the atrocities before we can overcome them.”
Berger’s version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” offers just such a front row seat, conjuring up senseless horrors one would only want to experience at the movies.
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