As artwork, the eagerly awaited Netflix adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque by Edward Berger “Nothing new in the West” certainly deserves all the praise and accolades it has received for outstanding filmmaking, cinematographic excellence, production design and stunning performances by an impressive cast of German speaking actors.
“If you want more, if you want to understand, maybe even feel the experience as brilliantly portrayed by Erich Maria Remarque, then read his book.”
Unfortunately, what the screenwriters and film critics who praised the production didn’t realize was that they were claiming their creation was an adaptation of it “Nothing new in the West,” They took on a commitment that went far beyond creating a work of art or war pornography designed to astound the viewer with their heartbreaking and genuinely horrifying battle scenes of death and destruction. Rather, given the importance of Remarque’s work, they accepted the great responsibility of bringing as faithfully as possible, in a cinematic format, a truly timeless and seminal study of war and the ways in which governments mythologize the experience to seduce, perhaps is better to grasp, and then to indoctrinate and condition young men, and now women, to march blindly to slaughter and be slaughtered on the battlefield.
what differs “Nothing new in the West” Different from other books and films depicting the horror and devastation of war, Remarque’s experiential, deep understanding of the phenomenon of war and the lies told by military and political leaders, that war is necessary, glorious, noble, and patriotic and love of country is require selfless service and sacrifice. It is his literary genius in portraying characters and events that makes the psychological, emotional and moral impact of war – the despair, overwhelming fear and trauma – so clear and obvious that even those fortunate enough to see the battlefield not having experienced it, not only being able to understand it but, more importantly, feeling the war. It’s Remarques’ courage to relive the horror and give his readers access to experiences I’m sure even he would rather forget.
I have no doubt that those who appreciate the craft of filmmaking and enjoy war pornography will surely find something to admire and enjoy here. However, given the sweeping liberties that screenwriters Berger, Lesley Patterson and Ian Stokell have taken, this Netflix film deviates so radically from Remarque’s intent and purpose – with its additions and omissions – that I’m forced to reconsider the decision to to market the film was questionable, as an adaptation of “All Quiet in the West” was at best a mistake, at worst a marketing strategy, hoping perhaps to increase interest and lend a credibility and meaning to Berger’s film that it would otherwise not would justify. For the remainder of this article, to justify my observations and criticisms, I’ll list just a few of the film’s most egregious flaws.
Why withhold from the viewer the visit of Paul Baumer and Friedrich Müller at the bedside of the mortally wounded Franz Kemmerich and the discussion about the loss of a comrade, the futility and waste of war, all disguised as Müller’s rather rude but practical pleas for Kemmerich’s plush boots his imminent death. Truly excellent writing, indicating Remarque’s intent and genius, none of which were deemed worthy of inclusion in the current ‘adaptation’.
“Now he’s lying there – and why? Everyone around the world should walk by their bedside and say, “This is Franz Kemmerich: he’s nineteen and a half and doesn’t want to die! don’t let him die!” (Remark, 1929, p. 29)
For Remarque, though clearly not Berger, “Nothing new in the West” is intended as a walk past Kemmerich’s bed.
dehumanization of the enemy
Another memorable incident from All quiet the meaning of which was diminished by its superficial mention in Berger’s film was the tragic confrontation between Paul Baumer and the enemy soldier who took refuge in the bomb crater where Paul was hiding. After Paul (and the reader) impulsively stab the Frenchman, they learn that the suffering soldier’s name was Gerard Duval and that he was a printer, with a wife and child who will never see him again. Paul is emotionally overwhelmed with regret as he recognizes the other’s humanity and dislike for what he did, all lost in the current adaptation.
“But now, for the first time, I see that you are a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, your bayonet, your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why don’t they ever tell us that you’re poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as scared as ours, and that we’re in the same fear of death and dying and agony— Forgive me, comrade; How could you be my enemy?” (Remark, 1929, p. 223)
What Remarque focuses on, of course, is Paul’s realization that he has been conditioned to dehumanize and hate Duval as an enemy, as part of the deception necessary if people are to become effective warriors and overcome their instinctive aversion to killing. Inevitably, however, the deception will be exposed and Paul the warrior must deal with the guilt, shame, fear and grief – the moral hurt – that comes with realizing he killed a “poor devil” like himself. Such an important scene, a poignant portrayal of what I have elsewhere referred to as that Psychological, Emotional and Moral (PEM) injuries from war.
His name, it’s a nail that gets hammered into me and never comes out. This man is connected to my life, so I must do everything, promise everything to save myself: I swear blindly that I want to live only for him and his family. (Remark, 1929, pp. 147–148)
Also omitted is Remarque’s poignant account of Paul’s homecoming on vacation, his estrangement from his family and his past. From his visit to his old teacher Kantorek’s classroom, where he felt compelled to tell the truth about the war, a truth condemned and accused of cowardice by Kantorek and his current group of “motivated” students. Remarque brilliantly depicts and provides insight into the abandonment, isolation and alienation that so many warriors endure upon returning home after enduring death and destruction on the front lines and growing old. During his vacation Paul gets conflicted,
“When I see them here, in their rooms, in their offices, through their professions, I feel an irresistible attraction, I want to be here too and forget the war; but it also repels me, it’s so tight. . . while outside the splinters howled over the shell holes and star shells rose, the wounded were carried back on waterproof sheets and comrades huddled in the trenches. They are different men here, men I cannot really understand, whom I envy and despise.” (Remark, 1929, p. 169)
Detached from their ethics—the frame of reference by which they structure their world—the returning warriors’ lives became meaningless, their world became incoherent, and their relationship to it and to others, even close family members, became incomprehensible. Paul executes.
“You’re home, you’re home. But a feeling of strangeness will not leave me. I can’t feel at home between these things. There’s my mother, there’s my sister, there’s my butterfly case and there’s the mahogany piano – but I’m not myself there. There’s a distance, a veil between us. . . Of course it’s me who has changed in the meantime. There is a gap between then and now. . . But now I see I’ve been crushed without knowing it. I don’t think I belong here anymore, it’s a strange world.” (Remark, 1929, pp. 160, 169)
“Nothing new in the West” is a masterful work of truth-finding. Remarque’s writings, observations, and insights demonstrate a deep understanding of the nature of war, its aftermath, and the difficulties warriors and veterans suffer in coping with traumatic battlefield experiences and memories. Its dialogue and imagery engages the reader both intellectually and emotionally, allowing access to a world unfamiliar to all but the relatively few who have endured the horrors of war first-hand.
It is no wonder, then, that so many who read All Quiet understand and understand it feeling the obscenity and evil of war, no wonder they perceive the novel as an anti-war novel. However, as Remarque makes clear in his introduction, All Quiet on the Western Front was not politically motivated. Nor was it his primary intention to espouse a pacifist ideology, although his experiences in the trenches had certainly convinced him of the futility and waste of war.
“This book is intended to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is no adventure for those who face it. It will simply attempt to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by war. (Remarque, 1929, introduction.)
Unfortunately, Berger completely missed the true punchline, depth, and grandeur of Remarque’s novel, instead focusing mostly on horrifying battlefield scenes and shattered bodies. What we have in the Netflix film is war porn, albeit expertly done, superficially disguised as a new adaptation of “Nothing new in the West,” Arguably the greatest novel about war ever written, and must-read for anyone considering enlisting in the military and/or sending young men and women to fight, kill and die.
So if you are looking for the horror and excitement of the battlefield, you can surely find it in Berger’s film. But if you want more, if you want to understand, maybe even feel, the experience brilliantly portrayed by Erich Maria Remarque, then read his book. If you prefer cinema, look for Lewis Milestone’s adaptation and winner of the 1930 Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director. What you may lose in sophisticated 21st-century technology, you will make up for with a better, more complete understanding of the nature of war and the realization that staying true to the original and the author’s intent can be consistent with exceptional filmmaking.