Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front picked up four awards at the 2023 Oscars: Best International Film, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Score. Why is the Netflix original release a big deal for voters? Here’s our original look at the film.
With so many movie industry awards happening before the Academy Awards ceremony, the Oscar winners tend to feel relatively predictable by the time the actual broadcast rolls around. So the biggest surprises tend to be reserved for the nominations. One of this year’s bigger surprises was the overall strength of Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which racked up nine Academy nominations, including Best Picture. It’s won a variety of industry and technical awards, and appeared prominently on best-of-2022 awards from film critics circles. At the BAFTAs (essentially the British Oscars), it notched an impressive 14 nominations and won in seven categories, including Best Film and Best Director. It’s now considered one of a handful of long-shot possibilities at upsetting presumed frontrunner Everything Everywhere All at Once for Best Picture in the United States. This is especially surprising, because it’s arguably the worst movie among the 10 nominees.
That may seem like a harsh judgment, especially for a movie with such impeccable technical credentials, coming from a story with such lasting cross-generational impact. The German-language film, a new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1929 anti-war novel, cuts between hardline negotiations to end World War I and the grisly fates of a group of young German soldiers. It’s a timeless message about the horrors of war. (So timeless, in fact, that it already inspired a Best Picture-winning 1930 adaptation.) But director Edward Berger uses a surprising amount of gore to deliver this message, to the point where the anti-war bona fides feel oddly regressive.
Filmmaker François Truffaut has been consistently cited (and even more frequently paraphrased) on the subject of anti-war films. Here’s what he told Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune 50 years ago, in 1973: “I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” The 2022 All Quiet on the Western Front is the latest movie to respond to this provocative and thoughtful notion with: “But what if we made it really violent?”
That isn’t necessarily a problem on its own. Berger can’t be faulted for not agreeing with Truffaut that his visually grotesque, upsetting movie inherently glorifies battles. His take on All Quiet on the Western Front does feel like part of a conversation about how to best depict death in combat without glamorizing it. Most of what the new version brings to that conversation, though, is the extremity and pervasiveness of its violence.
It never feels like Berger is trying to glorify war. The German soldiers are depicted as bamboozled with nationalistic speeches, completely undertrained, and living in a state of nonstop terror. The film even eliminates some respite by cutting out the more extensive furloughs some soldiers receive in the book. The audience scarcely sees an act of heroism throughout the film’s 140 minutes. The best the soldiers can hope for is a too-brief, too-late flash of humanity amid the carnage. More often, they hang onto simple dumb luck that eventually runs out. But like a lot of war movies following in the footsteps of Saving Private Ryan, the movie imitates the visceral slaughter of that movie’s harrowing opening passages without meaningfully deepening its impact. Instead, Berger tries for more punch by expanding the scope of the gore.
Arguably, Spielberg’s movie isn’t definitively anti-war either. But its ambiguous quality does make Saving Private Ryan especially compelling 25 years later. The ways it places acts of utter horror alongside empathetic characterizations — and yes, sentimental patriotism — denies the audience an easy set of answers. It’s characteristic of the later-period Spielberg who went on to make the Best Picture nominee The Fabelmans, which includes a scene where its young Spielberg stand-in Sammy enthusiastically rises to the technical challenge of making a war movie. The eagerness Sammy and his cast and crew bring to the project feels like a tacit admission that there’s a perverse artistic satisfaction in depicting grueling violence.
On paper, 2022’s All Quiet seems less conflicted about the meaning of war. For better or worse, it doesn’t have a Tom Hanks figure urging the young soldiers to “earn” the sacrifices being made all around them. The soldiers are adrift, fighting (mostly unsuccessfully) for their lives in the trenches of World War I, and an end crawl more or less informs the audience that their deaths were in vain. They aren’t heroes, they’re victims of the authority figures engaging in high-stakes negotiations far away. The battlefield action in All Quiet feels like the opening of Private Ryan, rather than the mission-driven violence that comes later: Bodies are crushed and burst by tank treads. A man graphically slits his own throat in despair. A soldier caked in mud stabs an enemy nearly to death, then attempts to help him as he bleeds out agonizingly.
Yet by emphasizing the unified plight of these young soldiers, Berger flattens them out as characters. Then he kills them off, one by one. Broadly speaking, that’s not so different from what happens in the 1930 film. What’s missing is the character-driven starkness that the earlier version gets out of its relative restraint; it’s explicit in its characters’ disillusion with their leaders and their country. Over on Letterboxd, writer and horror aficionado Louis Peitzman goes so far as to liken the 2022 All Quiet to a slasher picture, and it’s a perceptive comparison. No one is safe from death in this movie, and as the action stretches out, some of the deaths proceed with increasingly cruel and elaborate ironies that go beyond standard battlefield casualties.
Taking the comparison further, the existence of the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front makes the 2022 version feel a bit like one of those horror remakes that proliferated around the late 2000s. It doesn’t have much nuance, perspective, or originality. Instead, it superficially updates the story by adding more contemporary special effects. It’s a reboot of “war is hell,” with a gritty-war-movie palette just as standardized as the music-video grain in Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes slasher remakes, highlighting the rich muck tones and pale uniform blues. Also like those remakes, it lacks the soul and verve of a good exploitation movie. The visceral texture feels as much like set decoration as the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This makes the 2022 All Quiet both an outlier and a retread at the Oscars. Though foreign-language films have become more common Best Picture nominees since that category expanded in 2009, they still have the deck stacked against them when competing against their English-language counterparts. All Quiet’s heavy violence makes it a particularly bold choice. Plenty of awards movies have splatters of blood, but in terms of pure viscera, All Quiet probably boasts the greatest volume this side of a Guillermo del Toro nominee — or Mel Gibson’s similarly slaughter-obsessed 2016 war movie Hacksaw Ridge. That should function as a strong counterpoint to the slick, stubbornly contextless war games of Top Gun: Maverick, which coyly avoids naming an actual enemy so as to not alienate global audiences in search of a good time.
In practice, however, All Quiet on the Western Front feels more like a hollow gesture toward what an anti-war epic might look like in 2023. Last fall, as awards-season contenders rolled out in theaters and on streamers, Netflix seemed to be putting more money behind White Noise, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, which suggests that All Quiet’s success is largely based on organic appreciation for the movie among Oscar voters. But it’s a strange movie to inspire that kind of appreciation. It’s a feel-bad story that all but congratulates the audience for understanding its extremely simple “war is tragedy” messaging — and for enduring a soup of movie violence rebranded as serious business.