In Randolph Stow’s 1980 novel, The Merry Go-Round in the Sea, the futility of the war is captured in a single exacting image: a young Australian boy named Rob looks out to the sea and yearns for his father’s return. He spots a merry-go-round in the waters; it doesn’t occur to him that it can’t possibly be located there. It also doesn’t occur to him that the second world war is actually happening. For a child, and just as it should be for us, the idea that war exists is utterly incomprehensible. And like the cyclical movements of a merry-go-round, Rob wants to believe nothing will ever change: his father and cousins will return intact, safe and sound. The world is as it is today and forever.
It is only years later that Rob, now a teenager, swims out to sea and realizes that the merry go-round is actually the rotten mast of a wrecked ship. While Stow goes into graphic detail about the war, Rob’s realization is the most violent scene in The Merry Go-Round in the Sea, as his childhood innocence is destroyed and irrevocably replaced with the acceptance of a lesser world where men are murdered for nothing. The most poignant literature on war, from Wilfred Owen’s “1914” to Alain Renais and Marguerite Duras‘ Hiroshima Mon Amour, are all devastating ruminations on its futility from the perspectives of ordinary people. In war, there are no heroes and winners, only orphaned children forced to grow up too soon. Owen conveyed this futility most succinctly when he lamented that war is a famine of thought and feeling; it is driven by a total annihilation of everything that makes us human.
Edward Berger’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues), will not be joining the canon of literature that explicitly condemns the brutality of war. Berger’s film is the third remake of Remarque’s classic after Lewis Milestone‘s Oscar-winning 1930 adaptation and Delbert Mann‘s 1979 telefilm. It is a shame that Berger’s contemporaneity is glaringly obvious; the film’s relentless onslaught of graphic violence commits to an overwrought realism that is tantamount to a reductive and crude performance of technical mastery.
All Quiet on the Western Front opens as you expect a war film would. Men die like cattle in a rain of bullets; an unnamed boy watches as his friend is shot in the head within a fraction of a second. A man’s uniform is peeled off his corpse and transported to factories where women bleach it clean. It is not eight minutes before this same uniform is handed to a fresh recruit, Paul Bäummer (Felix Kammerer), who wears it with a youthful naivety that instills audiences with a sickening dread for what will inevitably come. By the thirty-minute mark, Paul’s friend, Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald), is killed by artillery fire. Paul is then left to collect half-tags from the muddy trenches. His optimism is shattered and his recycled uniform is bloodied once more. This violence repeats ad infinitum throughout the film’s almost three-hour runtime.
To Berger’s credit, his opening scene devastates because it is efficient in its forceful truncation. A man’s death cannot make an emotional dent in war’s unfeeling machinery. All Quiet on the Western excels in the showy generic conventions of war films like 1917 and Saving Private Ryan, whereby violence becomes pure spectacle; it is where directors can flaunt their technical aptitude. In Berger’s adaptation, prolonged scenes of senseless suffering replace the haunting intimacy that renders Remarque’s novel a searing indictment of war. Open wounds and explosions look so painfully real that we are forced to grimace at the sight of the endless bloodshed. But what about the people who are living through war? What are their hopes and dreams?
Remarque’s novel wants us to know who Paul and his friends are – as boys with so much feeling that the emotional famine of war becomes its ultimate tragedy. All throughout Remarque’s text are moments illustrating life’s precious value. Take, for example, how Remarque equates the physical brutality of war with the loss of potentiality and love:
We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts.
Graphic depictions of violence aren’t the point of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, but it is the only point that Berger’s adaptation seems capable of making. The shells land nowhere close to the heart. We barely get glimpses of who Paul is as a person; the camera is unbearably alert to the violence that happens to him, but is frustratingly aloof when it comes to quieter scenes when Paul contemplates the consequences of war. One of the most affecting scenes in the novel comes in the ninth chapter, when Paul begs for forgiveness after being forced to kill a French soldier:
You were only an idea to me before, an abstraction . . . 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. Why do they never tell 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?
Remarque juxtaposes the violent physicality of war with Paul’s hallowed sorrow over the anticipatory grief experienced by the French soldier’s loved ones. Nothing is done in cold blood. Every single dead soldier weighs heavily on Paul’s tormented conscience; his psychological wounding allows us to be repulsed by the war but sympathetic toward the men carrying out these heinous orders. In Berger’s version, Paul has been so desensitized to violence that the death of a single man no longer matters. Maybe Berger is aiming for a cold portrayal of war where nameless men are slaughtered like cattle, but his over-aestheticized execution finds poetry in brutality.
The moral quandary of whether war can ever be ethically represented begets no satisfactory answers. It is why Duras’ famous screenplay focused on a doomed love affair instead of documenting what happened in Hiroshima; she understood that it is impossible to write about war’s unspeakable cruelty. To counter war’s emotional famine, Remarque imbued his novel with an abundance of intimacy. The poetry of war must be its pity. Unfortunately, Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front veers dangerously close to aestheticizing the violence of war and fails to tell us anything about it.