The Oscar’s “Foreign Film” category can sometimes be insular, where the value of many a film, spanning genres, is decided mainly by the fact that it is not in the English Language. This has changed, most notably since 2019, when South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho led “Parasite” to a historic “Best Picture” win, along with three other awards, transcending the language barrier.
Following that vein this year is “All Quiet On The Western Front,” albeit with less edge due to the Eurocentrism of cinema. This German film, based on a 1929 book of the same name, chronicles the war from the Germans’ western front, where the Germans battled the French.
It has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including “Best Picture” and “Best Foreign Film.”
The runtime of this film passes the 140-minute mark and is all the better for it. It is, in the timelessly European fashion, bleak and contemplative, and still finds a fresh way to package the tried, tested and tired World War film.
Given that the Golden age of cinema found WWII so fascinating, and created classics like “Where Eagles Dare” and “The Guns of Navarone,” “All Quiet On The Western Front” finds a home in completely upending the plucky north-Atlantic narrative, while not being particularly defensive about the WWI factors that led to the rise of Naziism.
The film opens with a jovial look at Paul, our lead, and his friends. They excitedly enlist to participate in the German war effort, with one going even as far as to lie to his parents to do so. There is a celebratory atmosphere as they are initiated into the military.
The lighthearted camaraderie punctuates this film at the most unassuming moments, driving home the human element of it all, and making one mourn the lives lived and then so quickly lost.
The dalliances the German soldiers enjoy with young French women do more to this end, as they are seen being infatuated and excited over the slightest interaction, most bittersweetly with a particularly vivacious poster.
They are young and naive, hopelessly so, and the brutality of battle spends the whole film taking a toll on Paul, with more time spent on the aftermath, the camera lingering over shredded corpses, than any gunfire.
“All Quiet On The Western Front” really earns the “Best Cinematography” academy Award nomination here, with start-to-finish shots of dirty, sludgy battlefields, and the victims of the battlefield. These long panoramas pay off beautifully, making clear the cost exacted on the living as we see the devastation of war along with them.
There is one particularly dark sequence, a five-minute-long scene of a soldier dying with Paul nearby and unable to help. The camera work here is stunning, with changes and movements that hypnotically lure you into the anguish of the scene, without having to edit a cut into the middle of it and thus detracting from it.
There is no glorification here, you realise, as the story goes on. This is something that occurs to the viewer at around the same time as the protagonist, which is after the first gunfight, as Paul regains consciousness to a moustachioed comrade who munches on bread, unfazed, and drily proclaims: “It’s the same every day.”
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From the moustache of this illiterate working-class Confucius to the grandiose facial hair of the military generals and German armistice negotiators, we see the perpetrators of this war live and speak with sophistication, enjoying the finer things in life, a couple of times through the film, with any real grit coming from Daniel Bruhl, who plays the chief negotiator.
We learn that he has lost close family to this war, and has no wish for anyone to experience this tragic loss. A particularly telling juxtaposition comes when the French lead of negotiations spends time away from the table critiquing his chef’s croissants. This callous bourgeoisie behaviour is seen similarly when the German general on the western front feasts at a banquet table while his soldiers eat bland rations and little else.
These moustaches and the exquisite tailoring on the uniforms and suits behind them are period-accurate and elegant to a very high degree, and set the tone for every character and scene they feature in. This makes a compelling case for the “Best Makeup and Hairstyling” Oscar nomination the film received.
The sound and score Academy Awards that “All Quiet on The Western Front” has been nominated for are also well earned. It might not be the strongest contender for score, as the aforementioned European sparseness of the film extends to the sonic realm as well. This is not to say that the score is ineffective. It makes the onset of battle as sharp and biting as it could be, puncturing the silent reverie of the film with a synthesiser and brass instrument motif that is as simple as it is haunting.
This film is not apolitical, and that is where it begins to diverge from the original text. I would remind you that the book is a product of late 1920s Germany, and it would be slightly disturbing to bring that sociopolitical sentiment to 2023.
We see a plotline of the above armistice negotiations, and Daniel Bruhl paints a picture of an empathetic yet shrewd political mind, faced with not only a curt and unmoving French military leader but the growing disrespect of his German peers.
Mention is made in the scenes of military strategising, of the ruin that social democrats are bringing to Germany, as the military struggles to curb its pride and settle for the armistice. The discontent and projected weakness of Germany that these powers felt was the leading factor of the outbreak of the second world war and this German film does well not to hide it, but emphasis just how hubristic this narrative was.
Toward the film’s conclusion, we are faced with the many futilities of war, from the individual to the international. The cyclical nature of daily battle, and the near-zero net gain become increasingly clear, and it’s hard not to assign modern relevance to this story.
While the events that “All Quiet On The Western Front” is based around may have been over a century ago, we are seeing a similarly pointless overreaching nationalism consume the lives of Ukrainians and Russians today. Russia is very much the Germany of this story, unwilling to yield for little reason outside a military leadership’s ego.
“All Quiet on The Western Front” is bound to win one of its many nominated awards, and consensus points to this being very much deserved. It is a deep-cutting and beautifully woven tale of tragedy, loss and the callousness taken to call for war and its end in equal measure. The nominations are much deserved, as are any views you give to it.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: The horrors of war dawn on Paul, the protagonist in “All Quiet On The Western Front.” Featured Photo Source: “All Quiet On The Western Front” Trailer on Youtube (screenshot).