I watched the Oscars last Sunday night mainly to see how the latest iteration of “All Quiet on the Western Front” would do. The fourth film version of the 1928 novel, written as a soldier’s memoir, by Erich Maria Remarque, is the product of German producer Malte Grunnert and won Oscars in four categories, being nominated for eight total, after earlier sweeping the British Oscars, the BAFTAs, with best picture and in many other categories.
Enhanced by its Oscar award winning cinematography, production design and original score, the film is the best of the four made over the years, beginning with the original version in 1930 made only a year after the book was released, with Remarque’s assistance, as a silent film at first that won Best Picture that year. The minute the Nazis came to power in Germany, it was summarily banned in all its forms.
This year’s profoundly moving version takes minor liberties with the book but is enhanced by its haunting score, led by an often repeated, very loud and ominous three-note taunt that underscores the horrific nature of the war and its consequences on those who had to fight it.
That, and the Oscar-winning cinematography and production design, make it a more than worthy Oscar triumph, the best of a series of films based on that novel, and of others made in the last decade that all set out to document the absolutely horrific conditions of that war.
World War I was called The Great War and The War to End All Wars in its time, even if the estimated 11 million casualties were far eclipsed by the up to 200 million estimated lost in World War 2 that began 11 years later and was the direct outgrowth of the first.
Combined, those two wars fought mostly on the soil of modern Europe by the best and brightest that civilization had achieved up to that point, has profoundly scarred our civilization, and we have not to this day recovered. Viewed together, as they should be, the two wars and the so-called “Long Weekend” in between assaulted Western civilization from 1914 to 1945, up to a time when many among us, myself included, began our lives.
In the last decade, roughly the 100 years since the onset of it all, solid cinematic works about World War I preceded this latest version, those by Steven Spielburg (“The War Horse,” 2011), Peter Jackson (“They Shall Not Grow Old,” 2018) using mostly enhanced actual footage from that war, and Sam Mendes (“1917,” 2019) based on his grandfather’s factual accounts of the war.
But “All Quiet on the Western Front” remains the unrivaled classic, because it, both the novel and the latest film version, is an untarnished display of the process by which a bunch a bright-eyed schoolboys got recruited into the nightmare by their elders, who pump them up with thoughts of glory and honor as a collective “Iron Fist of Germany.” “How sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland,” a fiery-eyed classroom teacher insists to his wide-eyed students, all of whom soon enlist with absolutely no idea what is in store for them.
From Page 11 of the book, “Kantorek gave us long lectures until the whole of our class went, under his shepherding, to the district commandant and volunteered. I can see him now, as he used to glare at us through his spectacles and say in a moving voice, ‘Won’t you join up, comrade?”
A promo for the book read: “This is the testament of Paul Baumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army of World War I. These young men become enthusiastic soldiers, but their world of duty, culture and progress breaks into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches.
“Through years of vivid horror, Paul holds to a single vow: to fight against the hatred that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against one another, if only he can come out of the war alive.”
The leaders of the war are shown as driven by hate, and the soldiers by empathy toward one another in their struggle to stay alive.