All Quiet on the Western Front

It was just a couple of years ago when I finally caught the 1930 screen adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque's landmark World War I novel. (Its original German title, Im Westen nichts Neues, is more blunt: Nothing New in the West.) As directed by Lewis Milestone, it holds up remarkably well, and was quite a sensation upon its release, arriving just twelve years after the end of that war and – although no one would have known it at the time – just nine years before the beginning of the next one. There are only two things working against it: first, the story centers on German soldiers, yet it's a Hollywood film with American actors with American accents portraying their former enemies; second, Lew Ayres, as protagonist Paul Bäumer, puts in an incredibly hammy and dated performance.

Edward Berger's 2022 adaptation rightfully has a German cast playing these German characters, speaking German. And of course with 90+ years of technical film improvements behind him, his version is far more visceral than Milestone's original. But we the audience also have 90+ years of war movies behind us, not to mention 90+ years of increasingly polarizing wars. So if All Quiet on the Western Front stunned those 1930 moviegoers who had never thought much about the realities of the battlefield, we the people of the 21st century don't need to be reminded that war is hell.

In short, while this All Quiet may be intense, it has nothing new to say.

Although I haven't read Remarque's novel, it's clear that Berger and/or screenwriters Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson made major changes – changes that take something away from the story. For starters, whereas the 1930 All Quiet spends a generous amount of time in its opening scenes in a German town, in which Paul and the other teenage boys get amped for battle, the 2022 version rushes through these scenes, with the disillusionment of actual war settling in all too quickly. Furthermore, a crucial scene both in the novel and the original film has Paul returning to his hometown while on furlough, disheartened at how the ignorant locals won't believe his horrific tales from the trenches. (There are also some tender moments with Paul's family, none of whom appear in the 2022 movie.) Berger instead gives us numerous cutaways to the haughty powers-that-be negotiating the terms of armistice. Those scenes are vaguely interesting, but they hamper the film's pace and make us forget about Paul and his kameraden. Finally, the first All Quiet really shone a light on the German army's unexpected enemy: starvation. The soldiers' hunger is in play in the 2022 version, but feels less urgent than before.

If you only want to watch one adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, I'd say that, although Berger's version is obviously more modern in its filmmaking, Milestone's version is still more affecting, notwithstanding Lew Ayres's corny acting. There's just more to it.