All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928)
All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Edward Berger (2022)
This is a graphic, gut wrenching book about the horrors of war.
I gave the book four stars, but this probably deserves five stars, and my four-star rating is purely subjective. War books just aren’t what I prefer to read as well as the fact that this felt neither plot driven nor character driven. Rather it is a series of events that describe what war does to the human spirit.
Having said that, we do follow our main character Paul and see into his emotions so you could argue that it is very character driven. I just felt detached from him though as a person, but the way the different events are described are so vivid and brutal and there are scenes that will stick with me forever
The Nazi’s burned copies of this book at the start of WW2 because of its anti-war stance. They wanted young German’s to go into battle naive, and not realize what the reality would be. Remarque didn’t live in Germany at the time so his life was spared, but they had his sister who was still living there beheaded.
The book has been adapted twice before, but this is the first time Germany has adapted it. The cinematography is amazing-some shots are beautiful, others brutal. The acting is excellent, and overall was a very moving experience. If I were to critique it, I would say that they aren’t telling anything new here. Now I know, they are adapted the book and even though the book was telling something new, now nearly 100 years later we have quite a few movies that tell the horror of war from the soldier’s perspective. In that regard, I almost wished they would have changed something, I don’t know what, in order to tell a new story. However, when it comes to the book, this is a great adaptation. It doesn’t follow the book exactly, but it definitely sticks to the major events and the overall message and theme is the same in both.
Movies are visual, and I assumed the movie would be more powerful here because of that. I thought some of the scenes that were so vivid and horrible in the book, would be even more visceral in visual format. While there is one scene that wrecked me, I am surprised to say I think the book was the one that shocked me more and there are graphic, heartbreaking scenes described that will stick with me more so than the scenes in the movie.
Something I preferred about the movie is that we see Paul as he enlists, and how he and his friends were so excited. We see them in their first battle, and how quickly reality hits them. In the book we are thrown in, and Paul tells us of how he used to be, compared to how he is now. I preferred the movie where we were along with Paul has, he sees what war is really like. It made me feel more connected to him in a way I hadn’t in the book.
The opening scene of the movie is also incredible. We see a young solider named Heinrich who is in battle and dies. His body, along with the others who died, are taken to an area where his usable clothes are taken and from there is jacket is sent to a factory where women are fixing the clothing. When young, excited, naïve Paul receives his uniform, he sees Heinrich’s name on the label and says this one already belongs to someone. The man then tears off the name telling him it’s fine and tosses the name onto the ground with all of the other torn off names.
Both book and movie do a good job showing the relationship Paul has with the other men in his unit, namely a man named Kat who he befriends. I didn’t notice too much dialogue taken right from the book, but there were a couple that were the same. In the movie we learn Kat has a wife and a son who had died. I don’t remember that being said in the book. I thought the movie did a good job building that friendship between Paul and Kat, which causes the impact of Kat’s death to be all the more painful.
In the movie there was another character I loved named Kropp who was played by Aaron Hilmer. He gave a great performance with such vulnerability and sadness. Felix Krammerer who plays Paul was also incredible.
The scene when Tjaden is in the hospital with a wounded leg which will be amputated is one that will stick with me forever. I think this scene hit hard partly because so much tension and sadness and hopelessness and pain had been building through the movie, and to see Tjaden kill himself when Paul and Kat were right there, trying to help him feel better by bringing him soup, was just so devastating.
In the book Tjaden gets his leg amputated, but I don’t recall him killing himself. I think there was another guy we learn about who tries to kill himself with a fork.
There is a scene in the movie when they steal a goose and eat it and the men seem to be enjoying themselves and having fun, yet a sad score plays in the background. Such an amazing scene, and it reminded me of this quote from the book, “It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces. Even so we cannot hold out much longer; our humour becomes more bitter every month. And this I know: all these things that now, while we are still in the war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentanglement of life and death.”
Paul on leave
Something that the movie leaves out is that part way through the book he goes on leave ot see his family. His mom is very sick with what they think is cancer and she is to get a surgery but his dad doesn’t know if they will even be able to afford it. He also has a hard time connecting with anyone, because no one understands what it is like at the front. This would have been an interesting scene in the movie, but I can see why they cut it.
One thing the movie has that the book doesn’t, is the German and French leaders as they discuss an armistice. We also see a German leader who has been a soldier for decades but had never experienced war. His father was a military leader and had been in a war, and he feels like he hasn’t made an impact because there was no war. So, he is glad for the war now. When the end of the way is fifteen minutes away, he calls for one more attack, so they can end the war fighting. While this last attack happens, he is in his fancy building, and hasn’t done any of the actual fighting. The book has a few quotes about the countries leaders and the adults that encouraged the young men to enlist which read, “There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly.” Another quote reading, “I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.”
The movie juxtaposes the stark scenes of war and violence, and starving soldiers, with the scenes of the political leaders in a fancy dining car complaining about day old croissants. Ugh, just thinking of these scenes in book and movie make me angry.
Some of the leaders think the war brings honor to those who fight, to which one of the men (Daniel Bruhl who was in Inglorious Bastards and Rush) replies, “my son died in the war. He feels no honor.”
The French soldier
In book and movie, we have a scene where Paul and a French soldier are in this pit and Paul stabs the man. He is stick in the hole though, and the Frenchman is gurgling. Paul at feels like he is being driven crazy by the sound. But then he tries to help the man, who eventually ends up dying. Paul sees this man and realizes he is a fellow human, not different than himself. The book reads, “Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up— take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”
The movie scene is very well done, but I found the scene in the book to be even more moving and heart wrenching.
In book and movie, when the war is near its end, Kat is shot but still alive. Paul carries him to the hospital, but once he drops him off the medic says he is dead. In the movie he is killed by a French boy whose farm they would rob. In the book I think he was just shot by someone in fighting.
After this, Paul is feeling nothing. We see him in line as the guy gives his speech about having one last attack. Again, such a great scene as the man talks about honor and bravery, and we see Paul who has been depleted and robbed of everything thanks to this war.
While in this last battle, Paul gets in a fight with a French soldier and they go back and forth before having a standoff and staring at each other. In that moment, a different French soldier comes up from behind and stabs him in the heart. The other French soldiers looks at him, before leaving as the call of the endo f the war comes out.
Paul walks out slowly into the trench, and the next time we see him is one a German soldier is taking the dog tags off dying soldiers, as Paul had done earlier in the movie, and he takes Paul’s.
Paul dying in the end of the only way this book (and movie) could end. Sure, we could have seen him go back home and seen how changed he was and his struggle to fit in. But I think that for what this book was setting out to do, the main soldier would have to die. Partly for the sake of Paul, to finally put him out of his misery. But also, because this book feels so hopeless, and his death just really punctuates the hopelessness of war.
Book vs movie
When it comes to which I liked better, this one is so tough! I felt more connected to Paul in the movie, yet the book has some passages that are just so incredible. Both book and movie have the feel of a horror book/movie at times because of the violence and terror and desperation that happens. The scene in the movie when the French tanks show up felt like a scene from a monster movie of some kind. Not a fun monster movie, but a horrifying one. I am so glad to have read the book, and so glad to have watched the movie. Experiencing both back-to-back is quite the experience, and I would highly recommend both.