With nine Oscar nominations and a leading 14 nods for next month’s Bafta film awards, it could become the most decorated German film of all time. But in its country of origin, Edward Berger’s All Quiet On the Western Front has left critics distinctly unimpressed.
The film, which was commissioned by Netflix and shown on the streaming platform a month after its cinematic release, could in March become the first feature-length German production to win an Oscar since 2007’s The Lives of Others, accentuating a widening appeal of non-English language cinema.
Yet upon its release in Germany the first world war drama has been at the receiving end of a critical drubbing, with critics complaining that it turns a beloved literary classic into a spectacle “horny for an Oscar”, and military historians bemoaning its “black-and-white” historical inaccuracies.
Much of the criticism has to do with the enduring popularity of Erich-Maria Remarque’s 1928 anti-war novel, which was banned by the Nazis and is a set text at many schools across modern Germany. With more than 20m copies sold worldwide since publication, it is, as Süddeutsche Zeitung writes, “one of the most important books ever written in the German language”.
Yet Berger’s film, the same Munich-based broadsheet wrote, showed that “no book is so good that you can’t turn it into a terrible film”. With new subplots, absent central characters and added backstories, Süddeutsche’s critic Hubert Wetzel wrote, “you have to ask yourself whether director Berger has even read Remarque’s novel”.
Even the film’s title had lost its meaning, the newspaper complained. In keeping with its unsentimental narrative style, the novel ends on a laconic epilogue noting the narrator Paul Bäumer’s passing. “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: all quiet on the western front.”
The film’s protagonist, played by the Austrian actor Felix Kammerer, by contrast, dies in a noisy, action-filled close-combat scene.
Süddeutsche suggested the film was above all a piece of “clever marketing” for a streaming platform eager to convert film prizes into new subscriptions. “148 minutes of blockbuster-compatible war kitsch is being slapped with a title that is internationally known and guarantees prestige and good sales. Maybe even an Oscar.”
Thirty per cent of Netflix’s content has to be from the EU in order for it to operate there. As an on-demand service, the platform has been able to push some of its non-American films to several audiences across the world at the same time, rather than wait for them to percolate through the film festival circuit.
Netflix gained its first Oscars for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma in 2019, partially thanks to a lavish marketing drive, but failed to take the coveted best picture prize.
Outside Germany, All Quiet on the Western Front has garnered mostly favourable reviews, with a 98% score on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. But German coverage has widely bemoaned a lack of emotional intimacy.
“The inner plot, the brains of the story, have been removed by Edward Berger and his scriptwriters and replaced with a Hollywood programme”, said Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
If Remarque’s Bäumer was a “thoughtful narrator” who gradually woke up to the cruelty and futility of the war, Berger’s hero is “a simpleton, a fool, who still hasn’t realised by the end what is happening on the battle fields of Flanders”.
Even the tabloid Bild, hardly known as a haven of art-house snobbery, published a hatchet job. “There are good literary adaptations and there are bad ones, and then there is All Quiet on the Western Front by director Edward Berger,” Bild’s critic wrote.
“His version of Erich-Maria Remarque’s classic is a piece of indescribable impudence. It takes a considerable portion of ignorance, disrespect and Oscar-lust to mess up a masterpiece in such a fashion, to pulverise its content and story so mercilessly.”
The listings magazine TV Spielfilm at least tried to be charitable. “All Quiet on the Western Front is a well-made film, but a failed literary adaptation.” it wrote.
Several English-language reviews have hailed the film’s realistic depiction of battlefield scenes, but in Germany historians have disagreed.
Sönke Neitzel, a professor of military history at the University of Potsdam, said the brutal battle scenes were more accurate than those depicted in previous film versions by Lewis Milestone (1930) and Delbert Mann (1979), but added that the film had ultimately fallen back on cliches.
In Berger’s film, a German general, played by Devid Striesow, launches Bäumer’s battalion into a doomed final counterattack just hours before the armistice of 1 November 1918. “Of course that is a caricature,” Neitzel told the broadcaster MDR. “It’s the story of evil generals and poor soldiers sacrificed as cannon fodder. I consider that sheer nonsense.”
Soldiers being shot to stop them from deserting, as is shown in the Netflix film, would have better fitted into a film about the international conflict that followed almost 20 years later, he said. “We know that only 48 soldiers were executed in the first world war, and 20,000 in the second world war,” Neitzel said.
He added: “Historians research this stuff until the cows come home and try to emphasise the complexity of what happened – and then you get films that show everything as black and white.”