All Quiet on the Western Front
An acclaimed novel nearly a century old is being revived on screen in Edward Berger’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. Published in 1929, the German classic by Erich Maria Remarque tells the story of World War I from the perspective of young soldier Paul Bäumer, who volunteers to join the war efforts with a group of classmates and quickly finds himself dealing with the grim realities of the trench-fought war.
“When the idea of adapting the book for the screen was planted in my head I was immediately fascinated. It is a world-famous German bestseller, but it had never been told from a German perspective,” recalls Berger. “What a challenge and what an opportunity!” When the book was published in Germany, it was an instant success, leading it to be translated into English in America where it became the best-selling fiction book of 1929. The pacifist novel seeped into American culture, influencing anti-war movement voices like Bob Dylan and being adapted into 1930’s Academy Award Best Picture winner. The novel still finds itself on required reading lists of many schools around the world, a point that helped Berger find the motivation to take on the project.
“As I was mulling it over, I decided to discuss the opportunity one night at the dinner table. When I mentioned the title, my daughter suddenly said, ‘If you can turn this book into a movie you absolutely have to do it!’ She was 17 at the time and, you would think, perhaps not really the audience for this type of movie. But she had just read the book in school and was so moved by it that she literally ordered me to take the opportunity.”
Being the first German director to shepard All Quiet on the Western Front to the screen, Berger (whose previous work includes Jack, Deutschland 83, Patrick Melrose, and Your Honor) brings a unique perspective to the film which he co-wrote with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell. “Being born and growing up in Germany, I have always had the sense that one feeling will be with us for our whole lifetimes: the feeling of being heir to two wars. My children still feel that today,” says the director. “It was important to me to take on the German perspective. Our view of war is marked by grief and shame, sorrow and death, destruction and guilt. I felt that making our history, background and attitude towards war the driving force behind the movie was a huge and fascinating challenge. I wanted to make a movie that felt like, in order to make it, you would’ve had to have grown up in Germany.”
Berger and his crew made every effort to use that perspective to bring authenticity to the screen. “I love planning every shot down to its last detail, and I was blessed with having the best possible crew to achieve it.The amount of love that went into each costume, the gradual break-down of the fabrics mirroring the characters’ demise, the texture, the make-up, the mud in the faces of our actors to express their innermost fears – it’s all still very flabbergasting to me. Everything that happens is only there to send the character on his way. Whether it’s the tanks, or the explosions echoing in our ears, or perhaps just birds chirping, it's all there to frame Paul Bäumer.”
Taking on the role of Paul is newcomer Felix Kammerer who delivers a poignant portrayal of the weight of warfare. “Felix has given his body and soul to this role. He carries the movie like a heavy sports bag, that's how he plays it – sober and unsentimental,” says Berger. “My contribution was to look at him and take care of him, to protect him, sometimes from the force of the task, but sometimes also from himself because he thoroughly, unconditionally surrendered himself to the role.”
Though the novel centers on a war fought over a century ago, there is plenty of relevance in its themes and message. “Remarque’s novel is almost 100 years old, but it could just as well have been written today,” Berger remarks. “Its language, the violence, the physicality, the wit – it all feels so very modern, it could easily have been written by an author of our generation. Sadly we can see on the news every day now how relevant this book still is. I fear that, unfortunately, it will never lose its weight.”
All Quiet on the Western Front releases globally on Netflix later this year.