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Movie review: 'All Quiet on the Western Front'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

"All Quiet On The Western Front," the classic novel about the horrors of World War I as told by a German soldier, has been retold as a movie by a German director. It's out on Netflix today. And as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, it's a visually stunning and powerfully acted rebuke of war from a country that lost two world wars. And just to note, this story contains the sound of cinematic gunfire.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The first scenes of "All Quiet On The Western Front" are, well, quiet. The sun is rising. A fox feeds her kits in their burrow. The forest above slowly wakes, and a gentle rumble signals a coming storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUFFLED BOOM)

SCHMITZ: But it's not thunder.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

SCHMITZ: It's the western front of World War I in occupied France, and it's anything but quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SCHMITZ: For the next two hours and 20 minutes, viewers of this latest adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's seminal 1929 novel accompany German soldier Paul Baumer's journey from an innocent, idealistic young man into a hardened, cold vessel whose soul has gone missing amidst the bodies, mud and trenches of what's known as the Great War.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SCHMITZ: This is the third adaptation of the novel. The most popular one came in 1930, just a year after Remarque's novel was published to wide international acclaim. And the Hollywood film with American actors playing German soldiers won the Oscar for best picture. But this adaptation is the most loyal one to the novel. The actors are German. So is the language, and so is the director.

EDWARD BERGER: You know, as a filmmaker, hopefully, you make films that somehow come from, you know, something inside.

SCHMITZ: Edward Berger, director of "All Quiet On The Western Front," says that insight is like your DNA.

BERGER: And my DNA is made up from history lessons, from being born in a country that twice in the last century succumbed to its self-destructive impulses or destructive impulses and started two world wars and brought terror into the world. And, you know, that leaves a tremendous amount of shame and guilt and horror. And - I mean, I remember my entire childhood, I was ashamed whenever someone asked where I'm from, that I had to say Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: Throughout Berger's film, the machine of war looms over these German soldiers like an inescapable fate. Combatants die, and armies of sewing machines recycle their uniforms for the next victims. The soundtrack, an ominous three-note blast from an instrument called the harmonium, conjures approaching death.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: But what makes Berger's adaptation even more German are the scenes he adds to illuminate the sentiments behind Germany's role in not only this war but the next one, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT")

DANIEL BRUHL: (As Matthias Erzberger, speaking French).

SCHMITZ: Berger added the real-life character of Matthias Erzberger, a hapless German politician who was chosen to negotiate an armistice with the French after heavy German losses and who tries to get whatever tiny concession he can from a French general.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT")

BRUHL: (As Matthias Erzberger, speaking French).

SCHMITZ: "Be fair to your enemy. Otherwise, he will hate this peace," says Erzberger, a foreshadowing of what's about to come - a country impoverished by war, leading to the rise of right-wing fascists who are hellbent on avenging the last one by starting another one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT")

THIBAULT DE MONTALEMBERT: (As General Foch, speaking French).

SCHMITZ: In response, the French general says, "Fair? You speak of fairness?" before ordering Erzberger to sign the armistice. And he does. Three years later in real life, Erzberger is assassinated by German nationalists.

Erzberger isn't Berger's only addition. There's also a fictionalized German general who, upon learning of the armistice, forces his troops to fight until the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

BERGER: And I wanted to put it in to say, listen; this was just the beginning. This was just the beginning of a much bigger terror and horror and the justification of many more vicious acts to follow.

SCHMITZ: In fact, the original film adaptation of this novel left its own trail of vicious acts when it was screened for the first time in Berlin in 1930. Members of the Nazi Party didn't like how the film portrayed war in its cruel and grim reality, and they didn't like that the studio that put it out, Universal, was run by a Jew. Remarque scholar Edward Smith says they bought up a block of 300 seats at the Berlin premiere.

EDWARD SMITH: This block of people let go mice. They threw stink bombs. They threw sneezing powder into the air, and they began screaming and yelling and creating loud interruptions and - to the point where the police had to be invoked.

SCHMITZ: And for days thereafter, the Nazis, led by propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, staged demonstrations and speeches that eventually got the movie and Remarque's book banned. The book is one of the first the Nazis burned in a series of public burnings.

This time around, the German reaction to the film is mostly positive. Some of the only criticism is that it's too violent, especially at a time when war has returned to Europe and is on everyone's minds. Berger says he conceived this film prior to all of this but could tell it was coming.

BERGER: It just felt like we already knew this was heading towards confrontation - you know, this confrontational discourse got bigger and bigger between people, between parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking German).

SCHMITZ: He says the rhetoric from populist leaders in Europe and the U.S. delivering messages of division, self-sufficiency and shunning any efforts to bring countries together - these were the very ideas that Berger says led to the Great War and to Erich Maria Remarque's breakthrough novel chronicling it and to his own film that reminds us all that if it's war we want, this is what we'll get.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

SCHMITZ: Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.