On the “war kitsch” of All Quiet On The Western Front

The German author Erich Maria Remarque’s First World War novel All Quiet on the Western Front has been adapted for the screen twice in the past, both times by Americans: in 1930 by Lewis Milestone as an early Hollywood film, and in a 1979 CBS television movie by Delbert Mann. But appropriately enough, the first German-made version – directed by Edward Berger and released on Netflix in October 2022 – looks likely to become the definitive one. It has 14 nominations at this year’s Baftas, more than any other film. And it has nine Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Best International Feature and Best Cinematography.

It is not hard to see why. Berger’s rendition of Remarque’s classic work of pacifist literature is monumental and visceral, immersing audiences in the mud, rain and blood of the trenches. The camera lingers on shots that could hang in a picture gallery: the tense red-eyed looks exchanged by soldiers awaiting a bombardment, the sepia-yellow smoke of battle, the bellicose Prussian general dining in the dusty grandeur of a commandeered French chateau far from the front. In a long film relatively short on dialogue, composer Volker Bertelmann’s three-note motif anchors an ominous score that conveys the young battlefield protagonists’ descent into animalistic degradation and violence.

That descent begins in 1917, amid martial hubris in a village in northern Germany, where 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his friends are roused into a patriotic fervour by their schoolmaster before being deployed to the Western Front in France. The film charts their attempts to cling to their humanity over the final, brutal year of the war, until the armistice at 11am on 11 November 1918, intercut with the efforts of the real-life politician Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) to persuade German High Command to hasten the end of the conflict. In perhaps its most gut-wrenching scene – based on one in the book – Paul is trapped in a shell hole in no-man’s-land with a French soldier whom he stabs. Wracked with guilt, he then attempts to save his victim from choking to death on his own blood.

No surprise, then, that in glowing English-language reviews the film has been compared to Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now. It “aims to pummel you with ceaseless brutality, and it’s hard not to be rattled by that”, ran one in the New York Times. Berger has said he was inspired to make a new adaptation of Remarque’s anti-war masterpiece by the “dangerous atmosphere of nationalism” of past years – as seen in the rise of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. Its release against the backdrop of Europe’s largest conflict since 1945 only adds to the resonance.

[See also: Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a spectacular mess]

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Yet it is precisely these bombastic qualities, so admired internationally, that have gone down poorly in Germany itself. Reviewers at the country’s grand broadsheets have been widely critical of what may well turn out to be their country’s most internationally garlanded film of its time. Their central objection has been that it is too “Hollywood”: long on ostentatious special effects, short on the subtleties of Remarque’s novel, and, in the memorable description of the Bild Zeitung tabloid, all-too “horny for Oscars”.

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The centre-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) claims “this is all about clever marketing: 148 minutes of blockbuster-worthy war kitsch are given a title that is known worldwide, which guarantees prestige and good sales”. The liberal Die Zeit calls it “a war film without an idea, without an aesthetic or any other attitude, a museum of good intentions”. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) sniffs at how: “Litres of fake blood flow, you look into grotesquely mud-encrusted faces, until at some point it’s more annoying than shocking.”

Particular criticism is reserved for the Erzberger subplot (added to Remarque’s story “at will”, harrumphs the SZ), as well as the simplistic moralising juxtaposition of Brühl’s humanist politician with the handlebar-moustached General Friedrichs, who orders one last bloody assault on the French trenches in the final minutes before the armistice. What accounts for this gulf in reactions to the film outside its home country and within it?

One way to explain the split is to view the German response as part of a reflexive scepticism at the recent boom in televisual and cinematic treatments of the country’s tumultuous 20th-century history, often made by foreign directors or producers and with deep-pocketed foreign funding from companies such as Netflix. Babylon Berlin (the most expensive German television show ever made), Deutschland 83 (a Cold War spy romp spanning West and East Germany) and The Defeated (a suspenseful police drama set in 1946 Berlin) have all thrilled international audiences but left many German reviewers unimpressed. The Defeated, for example, was dismissed as “a fairground of entertaining cinematic postwar attractions” (FAZ), and one that “juggles so frivolously with historical guilt complexes, as if this were a children’s game” (GQ Germany).

It is hardly surprising that this proprietorial protectiveness against overly slick portrayals of the German past should be particularly acute with All Quiet on the Western Front. Based on his own war experiences, Remarque’s novel first appeared in serialisation in the liberal Vossische Zeitung newspaper in 1928, then in book form as Im Western Nichts Neues (literally: Nothing New in the West) the following year. It promptly became an international bestseller, distinguished by its unvarnished accounts of trench warfare and its consciously anti-heroic ethos; in its author’s words “neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it”. When the Nazis came to power it was promptly declared “unpatriotic” and “degenerate”, removed from libraries and publicly burned.

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The novel is as canonical to today’s federal republic as it is possible to be: central to the country’s sense of itself as the land that learned from history. Children read it in school. In Berlin a memorial marks the spot on Bebelplatz where it and other books were incinerated in 1933. Berger has alluded to these sensitivities: “Unlike with American or British works, there can’t be a feeling of glorification in a German war film,” he said.

This German pacifist tradition might provide a deeper explanation for the film’s reception within the country. For that tradition is more complicated, less black-and-white, than is widely understood outside Germany – or than is always acknowledged within it.

It is sometimes imagined that the Stunde Null, the “Zero Hour” when the war in Europe ended in 1945 and Germans surveyed the all-encompassing physical and moral collapse of their country, thoroughly inoculated Germany against military values or warlike behaviour. That narrative of a nation of earnest Erzbergers – never too far from eye-rolling discussions of German foreign-policy foibles in London, Paris or Washington – runs through the country’s sizeable peace movement during the Cold War, through to its present-day reluctance to invest in its armed forces or lead Europe in providing Ukraine with the arms it needs to repel Russia.

The reality was always different. Postwar Germany had plenty of militaristic traits. Former senior officers in Adolf Hitler’s Reichswehr played major roles in the hurried establishment of the West and East German armed forces in the 1950s. The two Germanies were on the front line of the nascent Cold War, after all. Both had conscription (the reunified federal republic would only abolish military service in 2011). Career and educational opportunities in the East often required membership of the Free German Youth, a markedly martial organisation with its marches, flags and close links with the army. In the West the Bundeswehr built up a fleet of more than 7,000 battle tanks at its peak in the 1980s.

Far from exhibiting a knee-jerk pacifism, postwar Germany was often marked by intense debates about what did and did not constitute a just war. In a famous speech in the Bundestag in Bonn in 1983, Heiner Geissler, a leading Christian Democrat, equated certain forms of pacifism with appeasement, arguing that the “pacifism of the 1930s first made Auschwitz possible”. This presaged the stormy confrontations that took place as a reunified Germany moved towards a more normalised international role. At a pivotal 1999 conference of the Green Party, the then foreign minister Joschka Fischer (himself a veteran of demonstrations against nuclear weapons) made the ethical case for backing the Nato mission to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, a speech made to a cacophony of both boos and cheers.

A running theme of such debates right up to the present day is the German philosophical distinction, popularised by the sociologist Max Weber in 1919, between two moral frameworks, Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik, which can be loosely translated as an “ethics of conviction” and an “ethics of responsibility”. The contrast between the terms is commonly invoked in German public discussion. “Pundits drop them casually during television talk shows,” the German-American writer Andreas Kluth has noted: “Hosts use them as conversation-starters at dinner parties.” Often, though not always, one side will accuse the other of a surfeit of Gesinnungsethik, of letting abstract idealism trump realism and concrete outcomes (in his famous 1983 address Geissler did just that, describing appeasement’s “gesinnungsethische foundations”).

So it is today, as Germany grapples with the quandaries created by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. On the one side are those who warn that sending tanks and other heavy weaponry in order to follow the idealistic Gesinnungsethik of supporting Ukraine no matter what will lead to escalation and yet more destruction. This, for example, is the fundamental argument of a contentious new “Manifesto for Peace” published on 10 February by the left-wing politician Sahra Wagenknecht and the veteran feminist Alice Schwarzer, which was signed by a host of political and cultural figures.

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On the other side, it is argued that the Gesinnungsethik of clinging to peace even at the cost of horrific oppression of Ukrainians and emboldening Vladimir Putin is the opposite of true responsibility – or even of true conviction and idealism. In an influential column for the magazine Der Spiegel last April, the author Sascha Lobo criticised “German Lumpen-Pacifism”, writing: “When in the world should one be gesinnungsethisch if not now? With countless murdered and raped civilians? Gesinnungsethik here means drawing red lines which must have consequences if they are crossed.”

Such confrontations are throwing up all manner of complexities. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who shares his predecessor Angela Merkel’s knack for finding Germany’s fickle political centre ground, has attempted to bridge the divide between purist pacifists and those backing maximum military support of Ukraine (while reportedly raging about “warmongers” trying to rush him into overhasty decisions on topics such as sending tanks).

Meanwhile the Greens, a party born of the Cold War peace movement, have become the most forceful voice for sending Kyiv more weapons, faster. In a thoughtfully self-reflective recent column, Ulrike Winkelmann, editor of the Taz newspaper that has been a bastion of German pacifism for decades, argued for a more nuanced “new anti-militarism, one that can deal in contradictions” and that “must assume that democracies in a world of tyrants most likely have to be able to defend themselves”.

To understand that context is to understand more fully why Berger’s cinematically accomplished adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front met with such unease among German reviewers. The film may have departed from Remarque’s book in several significant ways, the merits of which are doubtless debatable, but both works fundamentally tell a morally stark story, a work of Gesinnungsethik – as befits their subject matter.

“Horny for Oscars” or otherwise, that story is not a realm of lesser evils or Verantwortungsethik. Berger has a right to use some artistic licence, even in the rather one-dimensional counterpoint of the peace-seeking Erzberger to the pantomime baddie General Friedrichs. Yet not all war works like that. Germany is discovering that as it continues its unusually fraught and at times ill-tempered debate about Russia and Ukraine.

A film such as Berger’s thus sits awkwardly in such a country – less the internationally imagined Germany of cosy wall-to-wall pacifism, but one that stands out for the intensity and salience of its moral paroxysms over the question of war. Scholz’s much-discussed Zeitenwende or “historical turning point” in German defence policy remains a work in progress. Berlin is sending tanks to Ukraine. Now the country is facing demands for jets – the next red line. There is talk of a restoration of military service. Europe is looking to it to provide more leadership – more responsibility – than it is currently comfortable with. And there is little room, in this Germany of contest and contradiction, for museums of good intentions.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is streaming on Netflix

[See also: Roald Dahl’s books are naughty by nature – editing a word or two won’t make them nice]

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