How much grue is enough?
Only literal-minded moviegoers like myself expect ‘realistic’ films to be factually accurate. But with some ‘historical’ movies, it’s shocking how much inaccuracy some in the English-language media are prepared to accept and even celebrate, as if reporters feel no obligation to check out and publicly document the propaganda, whether political or commercial.
Netflix’s $20m All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those films. In the words of Rebecca Schuman, on the Slate site last 1 February, noting the nine Oscar nominations including the first-ever Best Picture nod for a German film: “When it comes to Oscar bait, All Quiet on the Western Front has everything: A blistering, cacophonous score! Severe sepia-and-blue colour correction! The resplendent Daniel Brühl [from Inglourious Basterds and Rush]! Two hours and 27 minutes of unrelenting gore! And it worked! Of course it worked.”
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw points out that, remarkably, almost a century after the book appeared, we now have the first German-language adaptation of the book (“the most loved and hated novel about World War I” according to Patrick Sauer on the Smithsonian site). Bradshaw’s verdict: it “is very good: excellently acted and staged, with severity and moral seriousness”.
The Oscar nominations were for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Visual Effects, Sound, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Production Design.
Bradshaw also notes that this version of Remarque’s antiwar novel, first filmed in 1930 – by Hollywood, might have leapfrogged ahead of other contenders because “the brutal and continuing war in Ukraine may have directed Bafta’s collective unconscious to this brutal subject”.
If so, that is the first blunder. To judge from the videos coming out of Ukraine, World War I trench warfare was nothing like today’s battles in Ukraine’s villages, towns and strategic sites. As for graphically telling us about the horrors of all war, Schuman declares in her somewhat jokey chauvinistic piece: “I want my two hours and siebenundzwanzig Minuten back.”
More accurately, the director Edward Berger has similarly discussed the associations with Ukraine. “Berger told the A.V. Club that ‘unfortunately, this type of movie is always relevant.’ He said, ‘Even now we have a very unfortunate, timely relevance with Ukraine that we couldn’t foresee. But we had war 10 years ago and we’ll have it again in 10 years, unfortunately, so that subject matter somehow never gets old. But educational, I’m not sure. I don’t want to educate, I’m just a filmmaker. I tell stories and then you ideally draw your own conclusion and take it home and everyone’s going to be different.’ – People, 1 February 2023.
Berger has also commented that he’s “really proud of” the film and “it means a lot to have that recognized by the biggest film award in the world, you know? And to not have failed the novel … for now. It seems to have connected with the audience and not to have failed the original movie and that’s a sense of relief.”
This, too, misses the point of Remarque’s reality-based novel: the writer lambasted the nationalistic frenzy in Germany that led young men to volunteer. The scenes are there in the film, but painted in such broad strokes you hardly take it seriously as a picture of reality.
He also misreports the reactions among his nation’s critics. On its release in Germany, the Guardian records, it received “a critical drubbing, with critics complaining that it turns a beloved literary classic into a spectacle ‘horny for an Oscar’ [Oscar-Geilheit, in the tabloid Bild], and military historians bemoaning its ‘black-and-white’ historical inaccuracies.”
Hubert Wetzel in the Süddeutsche Zeitung complained that “even the film’s title had lost its meaning” because of its changes to Remarque’s story. He blamed the film’s weaknesses on Netflix’s lavish marketing promoting the film across the world rather than waiting for it to percolate through the film festival circuit. He saw it as, above all, a piece of “clever marketing” for a streaming platform eager to convert film prizes into new subscriptions. “148 minutes of blockbuster-compatible war kitsch is being slapped with a title that is internationally known and guarantees prestige and good sales. Maybe even an Oscar.”
In a judgement that has been picked up elsewhere, Wetzel said: “No book is so good you can’t make a bad film out of it”, which goes way too far in this case. (AQ2022, whatever its faults,is not a bad film).
The film itself is generally more accurate than the two previous (Western) versions to the experiences of trench warfare, historians say, while Remarque toned down his original battlefront descriptions in the novel at the request of his publishers.
Nevertheless, AQ2022 fails to do justice either to Remarque’s aims or to the last days of the war, despite adding what seems to be an unusually faithful account of the three days of diplomacy and negotiation before the declaration of the 11 November armistice.
Remarque (1898-1970), born Erich Paul Remark but adopting his mother’s middle name in her honour and changing his family name back to that of his French great-grandfather, was conscripted at age 18 and transferred to the Western Front on 12 June 1917, ten days before his 19th birthday. On 31 July 1917 he was wounded by shell shrapnel in his left leg, right arm and neck. Repatriated to an army hospital in Germany, he spent the rest of the war recovering from his wounds. Kate Lohnes at Britannica says “he witnessed many of the atrocities he later depicted in the novel” but also drew on the diaries and experience of friends to depict the story of his hero Paul Bäumer.
The “Grand Guignol” aspects of the movie may come at least partly from the novel’s original publication as a newspaper serial in 1928 before it hit the bookshelves in January 1929. Remarque had trouble getting the work into print because publishers feared interest in The Great War had waned over the previous 10 years of turmoil.
At the same time, the film’s additional caricatural style, e.g. the “bloodthirsty general so clichéd that he spends the movie sitting in his mansion literally twirling his moustache” (Schuman), may be designed for easy digestion in 2023.
In fact, General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, not the Germans, wanted to continue the conflict, while the French commander Koch is accurately portrayed as unrelentingly belligerent, according to the records examined by Joseph E. Persico on Army Times.
Tara Finn at History blog reports: “On 11 November alone [there] were nearly 11,000 casualties, dead, missing and injured, exceeding those on D-Day in 1944. Over 3,500 of these were American. Pershing had to face a Congressional hearing to explain why there were so many deaths when the hour of the armistice was known in advance.”
This storyline is an addition to Remarque’s original story, and has been well received, though German newspaper critics wrote that it played like “school television” and a “pumped-up mini-series”.
More drastically, AQ2022 abandoned the key part of Remarque’s novel that was included in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 filming (which won two Oscars, for Best Director and Best Production).
In wikipedia’s summary: “Paul visits home, and the contrast with civilian life highlights the cost of the war on his psyche. The town has not changed since he went off to war, but he has: he finds that he does ‘not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world’. He feels disconnected from most of the townspeople. His father asks him ‘stupid and distressing’ questions about his war experiences, not understanding ‘that a man cannot talk of such things’. An old schoolmaster lectures him about strategy and advancing to Paris while insisting that Paul and his friends know only their ‘own little sector’ of the war but nothing of the big picture.
“Indeed, the only person he remains connected to is his dying mother, with whom he shares a tender, yet restrained relationship. […] In the end, he concludes that he ‘ought never to have come [home] on leave’.”
This was a risky omission. An indication of the novel’s resonance with German audiences was that it sold one million copies in its first year. An estimated 30-40 million copies have been sold since. Schuman asserts every German schoolkid knows the work by heart.
Lew Ayres, who played Baumer (no umlaut) in the 1930 movie, was influenced by Remarque’s message, and declared himself a conscientious objector during World War II.
More dramatically, just before the U.S. movie received its German premiere, the Nazi party gained 18% of the national vote and became the nation’s second-largest party.
The film had a quiet debut on 4 December under heavy police guard, but Joseph Goebbels, the Smithsonian reports, guessed the theatre would let down its guard the day after. On 5 December 1930 Nazis shut down the projectors and savagely beat moviegoers believed to be Jewish.
“Within ten minutes, the cinema was a madhouse,” Goebbels wrote in his diary that night. “The police are powerless. The embittered masses are violently against the Jews.” The next few days saw other riots as he led torch-bearing hooligans. By the end of the week the censors banned the film.
Remarque, who was born Roman Catholic (not a Jew as the Nazis claimed] and was certainly not a Communist, saw what was coming in Germany. He bought a villa at Porto Ronco, near Locarno, on Lago Maggiore, and moved to Switzerland in 1932. He was in Berlin on 31 January 1933, when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. He was tipped off that Nazis were after him and drove back to his Swiss home. The History.com site records: “In 1933, […] All Quiet on the Western Front became one of the first ‘degenerate’ books to be publicly burnt.”
In 1938 Remarque’s citizenship was revoked. Fearing for his safety in Switzerland he and his wife actress Ilse Jutta Zambona emigrated to the United States. He had married her in 1925, divorced in 1930, then remarried in 1938 to prevent her being forced to return to Germany. In 1958 Remarque married Charlie Chaplin’s former wife, actress Paulette Goddard. He died of heart failure in 1970, and was buried in Ronco.
“His youngest sister Elfriede, a fashionista dressmaker living in Dresden, was turned in by her landlady and arrested by the Gestapo for ‘defeatist talk’ and ‘subversion of military strength’ In September 1943,” History.com tells us. “She was sentenced to death ‘as a dishonorable subversive propagandist for our enemies’. On December 12, Elfriede was beheaded by guillotine. Records of the judge’s summation at trial were destroyed in an air raid during Elfriede’s incarceration. In pronouncing the decision the judge allegedly stated: ‘We have sentenced you to death because we cannot apprehend your brother. You must suffer for your brother.’
Remarque would dedicate his 1952 novel Spark of Life to Elfriede, but in a final twist of the knife, it was omitted in the German version, a snub chalked up to those who still saw him as a traitor.” (Smithsonian)
Ticino’s official website describes Remarque as “alcoholic, a chain-smoker and often depressive”(LINK in German). After his death and Goddard’s in 1990, their Casa Monte Tabor was launched as a volunteer-driven project by the Erich Maria Remarque and Paulette Goddard Foundation, Inc. to be an artist residence and “living museum celebrating Remarque’s militant pacifist vision”, but it failed to find enough funding to stop the magnificent home being sold (LINK in German). Built in the 1920s, the luxury villa stood on 15,000 sq ft of land lush with subtropical vegetation. It looked out on the Brissago Islands as well as Lake Maggiore. Goddard left a large part of her fortune to New York University to fund an Institute that promoted Remarque’s ideals.
This indicates the extent to which omitting the social dimension of Remarque’s vision of World War I can damage the overall message of his work. The Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung objected: “The inner plot, the brains of the story, have been removed by Edward Berger and his scriptwriters and replaced with a Hollywood programme.” If Remarque’s Bäumer was a “thoughtful narrator” who gradually woke up to the cruelty and futility of the war, Berger’s hero, according to the FAZ, is “a simpleton, a fool, who still hasn’t realized by the end what is happening on the battle fields of Flanders” (Philip Olterman in the Guardian on 27 January 2023).
The film also muddies the novel’s “poetic” final scene, and plays with the novel’s time sequence for unrealistic dramatic effect. Nor do we hear of him as a teenager writing poems and a play “Saul”, referencing another figure who undergoes a complete conversion to Christian pacifism.
Nor do we learn of the final letter he composes to someone at home from the battlefield urging him not to sign up, and revealing “I am the last of seven members of my class […] From the very first battle I have been in all I have been around is horror, bodies tangling into unnatural shapes, blood and tears everywhere, along with watching close friends of mine die horrible deaths.”
Bäumer is played by Austrian actor Felix Kammerer in his first film role. Both English-language critics and the film-makers give high marks for his performance (LINK), though a number of scenes appear beyond his current skills.
To give credit where it’s due, after a kitschy start involving wild animals, AQ2022’s opening scenes get Remarque’s message across with chilling objectivity (I won’t describe it, so that its impact won’t be dissipated the first time you see it).
As for the final German assault (another invention), the German military historian Sönke Neitzel protested: “Of course that is a caricature. It’s the story of evil generals and poor soldiers sacrificed as cannon fodder. I consider that sheer nonsense.” This is likewise a mischaracterization. The fictional general in the film offers up the prospect of Germany seizing valuable territory from the French (the film’s General Friedrichs is an invention).
It has been recorded that “trench warfare had practically stopped by March 1918 following the Hundred Days Offensive which saw the Allies push the Axis powers back, liberating much of France and Belgium in the process”(Radio Times, 3 November 2022).
Supposedly, the last soldier to die in World War I was an American who charged the German lines after he was demoted for expressing anti-war sentiments in letters home. ScreenRant reports: “Officially, the final battle of World War I was the Battle of Mons, which occurred the day the armistice took effect. Canadian forces captured the Belgian town of Mons from German holdings, with the last ‘official’ battle casualty being a Canadian soldier shot by a sniper.”
The scene of soldiers being shot to stop them deserting on 11 November also caused offence in Germany. “We know that only 48 soldiers were executed in the first world war,” Neitzel remarked. This compared to 20,000 in the Second World War (Guardian again).
AQ2022 was mainly filmed in the Czech Republic (Prague, Milovice, Točnik Castle), with some shooting done in Belgium and Germany as well. In a former Soviet-era airport in the town of Milovice the production team dug hundreds of feet of trenches.
It could have been much more accurately gruesome. AQ1979, a television film by Delbert Mann, with Ernest Borgnine, shows a young German soldier choking on poisonous gas while his gas-masked comrades debate whether to “euthanize” him out of mercy. Another scene displays soldiers baiting rats with rotten bread to kill the pests. A soldier is shown picking lice off his body under his shirt. All true. In Remarque’s novel the screams of injured horses on the battlefield become one of the first experiences of new recruits, mercifully omitted here.
How much grue you are prepared to watch in war films is a personal choice, but the film-makers have said they went to great pains (for the actors) to be authentic to the time, even forcing the cast to wear 1918-style army boots even when these weren’t seen onscreen. The uniforms, too, were as uncomfortable as the originals, particularly when wet.
I didn’t find the grisliness obstructive, though the soldiers did seem to have much more mud than I have seen on any soldiers in photos. Tanks were in action from 1915 on, so the confusion of German soldiers in 1918 seems out of synch with history, and at least one commentator has remarked that the Germans’ shooting at tanks with bullets echoes the “endless optimism” of Tom Hanks doing the same thing in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998).
What did seem a complete failure in AQ2022 was its failure, in its determination to stress the horrors of trench experiences, to emulate Remarque’s efforts to describe the varied experiences of German soldiers in the final period of the war. Apart from the boredom and grime, Remarque also depicts his troops at a depot where food is available and the atmosphere more relaxed. It’s there but not explained.
The unanswered question is, why make All Quiet on the Western Front today in Germany, when Remarque himself almost immediately published a similar account of the postwar years in Germany (The Way Back/Der Weg zurück, 1931), with a major character from the first book prominent in the second?
wikipedia says: “Its most salient feature is the main characters’ pessimism about contemporary society which, they feel, is morally bankrupt because it has allegedly caused the war and apparently does not wish to reform itself.”
A U.S. version was filmed in 1937 by James Whale, “with prescient warnings about the rising dangers of the dictatorship of Nazi Germany” (wikipedia). But All Quiet 1930’s Jewish producer Carl Laemmle and his son, the former heads of Universal, “had recently been ousted by a corporate takeover. The new studio heads, fearing financial loss, caved in to Nazi pressure.
The film was partially reshot with another director, and the remainder extensively re-edited, leaving it a pale shadow of Whale’s original intentions. Disgusted with the studio’s cowardice under its new management, Whale left Universal” (wikipedia).
It is notable that this version has an 11 November German assault on French lines just before the armistice, leading to heavy casualties, but the troops do not learn there is an armistice until after 11a.m. John Mosher in The New Yorker, along with many other thumbs-down critics, said: “the essential atmosphere is often bewildering. It’s neither German nor anything else—just studio nether world” (wikipedia).
Given the poor reviews and its “great theme” (as the New York Times judged it), this extension could have justified the 2 hours 27 min. Add half an hour on how ordinary Germans lived with hyperinflation while the U.S. roared ecstatically through the 20s and we might have had a resonant contemporary reworking of German history.
My verdict: Competently directed but without panache, competently written to soap-opera standards, decently acted but without a performance to engage you, well-photographed though you might find the CGI sometimes obvious. But don’t rely on it to write your school essay about the “the greatest war novel of all time”. Music (by Volker Bertelmann, who performs under the name of Hauska): definitely impressive. If you want to see a 20-years-younger Daniel Brühl in a satirical film of fantasy realism, try Goodbye, Lenin! (2003) set in East Germany immediately after the fall of Communism.
The Oscar wins (full list):
Best original score: Volker Bertelmann
Best production design: Christian M. Goldbeck, set decoration by Ernestine Hipper
Best international feature film
Best cinematography: James Friend
The Bafta nominations (Link): awards in bold
- Best film
- Best film not in the English language
- Best director
- Best adapted screenplay
- Best supporting actor: Albert Schuch
- Best original score: maybe, but there’s Pinocchio to contend with
- Best casting
- Best cinematography (James Friend)
- Best editing (Sven Budelmann)
- Best costume design
- Best makeup & hair: Better than Elvis?
- Best sound: Lars Ginzsel, Frank Kruse, Viktor Prášil, Markus Stemler
- Best special visual effects: but there’s Everything Everywhere All at Once
You might be interested in a collection of other bs ‘true-life’ Oscar films from Hollywood, courtesy of entries on the cracked website.
Gladiator: Maximus duels and kills Emperor Commodus in the arena. The real Commodus was killed in the bath by a wrestler named Narcissus. And unlike the brief term shown in the film, Commodus served as Roman emperor for a successful 13 years. Commodus was not rejected by his father and did not assassinate him. Maximus never existed.
Dallas Buyers Club: In the movie, cowboy Ron Woodroof smuggles safe but non-FDA-approved AIDS medications, like Peptide T, DDC, and Compound Q. In real life, the drugs Woodroof got his hands on simply didn’t work. We know now Peptide T is useless at fighting HIV, while DDC can have even worse side effects than AZT. As for Compound Q? It straight up killed two people.
Hotel Rwanda: Hotel Rwanda tells of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina’s frantic efforts to harbour and save refugees during the Rwandan genocide. However, survivors say he exaggerated his heroism, and was in fact charging his guests for safe haven in the hotel. One of the employees of the hotel claimed people who couldn’t pay were kicked out, and he called the film “a basket of lies”. See also Foreign Policy (LINK).
Hoosiers: Hoosiers is based on Milan High School and their 1954 championship run. In reality, the team surprised no one with their performance in the state tournament. They were a small school, sure, but they’d been on the big stage before – the previous year.
Amadeus: In Amadeus, Mozart is a goof who is fiercely envied (and probably killed) by Salieri. But most historians agree that their relationship was one of friendly rivalry, marked by mutual respect and admiration. Mozart likely drank himself to death, and yet he was far from the potty-mouthed, giggling simpleton depicted in the movie.
Catch Me If You Can: The FBI agent Tom Hanks plays didn’t exist. Some FBI agents did occasionally chase Abagnale, but he didn’t have a Holmes/Moriarty relationship with any of them, and he certainly didn’t call any of them at Christmas. As Abagnale himself points out with flawless logic: “Why would I do that? I didn’t want the FBI to know where I was.”
Argo: In Argo the Americans save the day. In reality, it was Canada that pulled off the rescue.
The Blind Side: Michael Oher’s road to success didn’t really begin with getting adopted by a generous white family. At age 11, he turned away from gangs and drugs. At 13, he had a paper route. By the time he met the Tuohys, he attended the same private Christian school as their kids. The subplot about Oher being a gentle giant reluctant to tackle opponents was totally invented for the film.
A Beautiful Mind: According to the film, John Nash uses his Nobel acceptance speech to thank his wife. Nash was not invited to give a Nobel speech because of his instability. According to an observer, Nash said that he hoped winning the Nobel would improve his credit rating, because he really wanted a credit card.
Sully: Sully quickly ran out of things to do after that whole landing a plane in a river thing wrapped up, so they threw in a phony conflict with the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the crash. “The NTSB is required to investigate ANY crash, and wasn’t on any malicious crusade. Their interview with Sullenberger wasn’t dramatic and antagonistic. He cooperated, and was comfortable throughout.”
Erin Brokovich: In the movie, everyone’s delighted at the end of the trial. But the actual plaintiffs were far from satisfied. Brockovich’s firm delayed sharing any of the settlement, took an unusually large share of the children’s compensation, and charged eight figures in expenses beyond what was originally agreed.
The Sound of Music: In the film, the grumpy, hard-nosed captain learns to enjoy music. But the real Georg von Trapp was a sweet man who loved music. His children were never happy about the way their kind father was portrayed on film. On the other hand, the real Maria wasn’t quite as endearing as her onscreen persona. In a 2003 interview, one of the real Trapp children confessed that Maria had a “terrible temper”.
Bridge of Spies: In Best Picture nominee Bridge of Spies, spy plane pilot Gary Powers is captured and tortured by the Soviets. The real Powers was treated well. He spent most of his time in jail wondering whether his wife was having an affair. And knitting. Seriously. He knit an entire rug during his imprisonment. He had no classified information to share.
Steve Jobs: In Steve Jobs, the titular character is portrayed as the saviour of Apple. But Jobs almost sank the company. As part of his return to Apple, Jobs was awarded $1.5 million in shares of stock. As soon as it was legally possible to do so, he sold those shares, an action that nearly destroyed [the company].
Titanic: Rose survives despite the crew’s bungling efforts. In the film, William Murdoch sends off half-filled lifeboats, panics, and even murders passengers. In reality, he filled boats to capacity and sacrificed himself so others could survive. The portrayal was SO insulting, studio executives flew to his hometown to apologise.
The Theory of Everything: In the film Stephen and Jane Hawking drift apart but remain friends. In truth, Hawking’s divorce was bitter, and his second wife was abusive. His relationship with Jane and the children was distant and strained.
…and once you have started…
you will keep finding other examples of films that dealt in lies, along with cracked’s fans:
Imitation Game: Commander Alastair Denniston is portrayed as a terrible person looking to sabotage Alan Turing’s code-breaking career at every turn. In reality, Denniston personally supported the Enigma Project. In fact, he was the one who hired Alan Turing as one of the codebreakers.
Rush: James Hunt and Niki Lauda appear as bitter rivals in the movie. In reality, the two were actually good friends, and had even shared an apartment together.
12 Years a Slave: William Ford, the slave-owner, is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch as a pompous hypocrite and a weak man. But in the autobiography that the movie is based on, Solomon Northup had nothing but praise for his master: “…there never was a more kind, noble, candid Christian man than William Ford…”
The Social Network: In the film, Mark Zuckerberg only created Facebook because he wanted to attract women after a breakup. In reality, Zuckerberg was already dating a girl at the time he created Facebook, and he married her later.
Lawrence of Arabia: The film portrays General Edmund Allenby as a bastard who thinks he is superior to Lawrence and is cold-hearted towards the Arabs. Real-life Allenby was actually a good friend to Lawrence. He fought for Egypt’s independence by threatening to resign if it wasn’t granted by England. He succeeded.
The King’s Speech: Winston Churchill appears to be on George VI’s side. Actually he was a supporter of Nazi-sympathizer King Edward VIII.
American Sniper: The film portrayed the sniper as being haunted by having the highest kill-count. In real life, he had no regrets.
Guardian: Will All Quiet on the Western Front really conquer all at the Baftas? (LINK)
People: Everything to Know About ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, the German Film with 9 Oscar Nominations (LINK)
Wikipedia: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022 film) (LINK)
Rotten Tomatoes: All Quiet on the Western Front: 92% from critics, 90% audience score (LINK)
Decider: Is ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ Based on a True Story? (LINK)
Screenrant: Full Breakdown Of All Quiet On The Western Front’s True Story & Events (LINK)
National World: Is All Quiet on the Western Front a true story? Real events Netflix movie is based on and Erich Remarque book (LINK)
History Blog: The war that did not end at 11am on 11 November (LINK)
Army Times: Nov. 11, 1918: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day (LINK)
Smithsonian Magazine: The Most Loved and Hated Novel About World War I. An international bestseller, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was banned and burned in Nazi Germany (LINK)
Guardian: All Quiet on the Western Front review – anti-war nightmare of bloodshed and chaos (LINK)
Guardian: German critics pan Oscar-nominated All Quiet On the Western Front (LINK)
Slate: Germans Are Right to Hate All Quiet on the Western Front (LINK)
Britannica: All Quiet on the Western Front, novel by Remarque (LINK)
Wikipedia: All Quiet on the Western Front (novel) (LINK): “This article is written like a personal reflection, personal essay, or argumentative essay that states a Wikipedia editor’s personal feelings or presents an original argument.” – wikipedia