Written by Helena Power
One of the legacies of the Great War Centenary is that there is a plethora of ‘forgotten’ stories about the war that remain to be explored. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the latest film about the conflict is a new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues). The original film adaptation was released in 1930, so this presents an interesting opportunity to look at the retelling of an adaptation almost a century later. By comparing and contrasting the 2022 remake with the 1930 film, we can observe how modern filmography trends have changed the ways we tell stories about the past. For brevity, I will avoid the 1979 film adaptation. For ease of reference, the 2022 film will be referred to by its German title of Im Westen nichts Neues (or Im Westen), and the 1930 film as All Quiet on the Western Front (or All Quiet).
Im Westen nichts Neues establishes its basis of striking visuals from the outset. The camera pans out across No Man’s Land to reveal dead bodies, pools of blood, and the occasional spattering of machinegun fire. Up by the enemy lines we find German soldier Heinrich sheltering by a ridge of earth before the barbed wire. In the ensuing attack on the enemy trench, Heinrich is killed. We then follow the collection of his uniform as it is washed, repaired, and redistributed for the next soldier – Paul Baumer. This gritty introduction and the sense of recycling and refilling uniforms for the Western Front underlines the anti-war message of Remarque’s work. It also deviates from All Quiet on the Western Front, which opened with the section that Im Westen nichts Neues moves to next, namely the boys listening to a rousing patriotic speech by their teacher about the importance of enlisting and fighting for Germany. It is difficult to determine which is the more effective opener here; on the one hand, All Quiet’s decision to start with the boys in the classroom forms the peak of optimism from which the viewer watches them plummet into the unforgiving reality of war. Whereas Im Westen’s introduction presents a stark contrast to the optimism that follows. The openings also immediately reveal one of the key differences between the films – the language. All Quiet can feel a somewhat awkward watch with American actors portraying German soldiers. Im Westen opts for the original language of Remarque’s work – it is a German production starring German actors, with subtitles available in English.
The narrative differences continue beyond the opening sequences. All Quiet features the boys training under an overzealous officer, whereas Im Westen has them starting off by bailing water out of the trench. Im Westen spends much less time on the boys’ encounter with a group of girls, diminishing this small moment of joy. Im Westen also reduces the focus on Paul’s encounter with a French soldier in a shell hole. In All Quiet, this is a relatively lengthy scene where, after stabbing the man, Paul is maddened over time by the Frenchman’s gurgling as he suffers a slow death, and speaks to him. In Im Westen, this is shortened and features much less dialogue, with Paul spending more time sobbing next to the man than talking to him. This demonstrates the newer film’s tendency to impress by visuals rather than dialogue. This is not to say that reliance on visuals does not serve the film well – indeed, the occasional shot of trees in untouched woodlands and empty fields are contrasted effectively with shattered trunks reminiscent of Paul Nash’s The Menin Road painting. The greatest difference, and indeed the largest deviation from the source material, was the inclusion of the progress towards the signing of the Armistice in Im Westen, and similarly the alternative fate of the characters. The cutaways to the discussions resulting in the signing of the Armistice are one of the most jarring design choices in the newer film, mostly because they break away from the first-person focus on Paul Baumer throughout the rest of the film. Im Westen also amplifies its ‘mud and blood’ representation, as Paul Baumer spends most of the film with one or both substances smeared over his face. It does not lose itself in modernisation, however. The soundtrack features the occasional sting of music which sounds like it might be about to introduce a modern soundtrack capable of putting some historians off from the outset. But it never moves beyond the audio stings. Yet, these features, when combined with the narrative deviations, raise eyebrows among those familiar with the original story.
But how much does this matter?
A cursory glance over reviews and responses to Im Westen generally reveals a divide between historians and the public. Historians criticise the deviation from the source material (i.e. the original novel) and the odd alterations to the conclusion of the film. Yet, critical and popular responses to the film are widely positive – it won seven BAFTAs and has been nominated for nine Oscars. Indeed, when I watched this with my partner, he was impressed with it. He has never read the book or watched any of the previous adaptations, so his appraisal was of it purely as a war film, presumably the same as much of the viewing public. Having read the novel and watched the 1930 film, I spared him a running commentary and extended review. But my discussion about it with him reminded me of the ongoing gap between what historians want from a film, and what the public wants (or what filmmakers believe they want). One wants a sense of the war, the other wants authenticity as far as possible. There needs to be some compromise. So, what of this effort? It frames a century-old story in modern techniques, without burying it in them. It adopts some creative license for narrative purposes. Perhaps this is the middle-ground to be sought between the needs of Public History to be accessible and engaging to a modern public, and the needs of academic history to be faithful to the source material. More likely, though, it will remain in the discursive battleground of historical authenticity where things are rarely all quiet.
Helena Power is a PhD student at the University of Kent researching cultural memory of the First World War and its transformation in the digital age.
Image Credit: All Quiet on the Western Front promotional poster by Netflix/Wikimedia. License: CC BY-SA 4.0