A war story is perfect Oscar bait. Sixteen such films have won Best Picture, dozens more have been nominated in major categories over the years, and war films are among the genres most associated with Oscar prestige. of Netflix All quiet on the Western Front it is the latest example of a long tradition. has earned nine Academy nominations in addition to its recent round win at the British Academy Film Awards in February. An adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel of the same name, All quiet follows a teenager named Paul Bäumer (played by Felix Kammerer), who, along with his classmates, is drawn into the fervor of World War I and voluntarily enlists in the German army. The story chronicles a brutal alchemy: The nationalist zeal of young soldiers turns to horror and disillusionment as they witness extreme, senseless violence.
Yet, ironically, the film itself seems to be more excited by this violence than by the emotional development of its characters. Unlike its 1930 predecessor, which won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, by Edward Berger All quiet skimps on the human drama. Its piles of awards and nominations—especially for adapted screenplay and visual effects—celebrate the areas where the film falters. The original novel offers timeless meditations not only on the graphic trenches of war but also on the psychological battles that follow. “This book,” writes Remarque in the epigram, “will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by war.” Berger’s adaptation, however lauded on the awards circuit, misunderstands this tricky balance, leaning toward the spectacle of combat and neglecting the more complex, less flashy aftermath.
First, the film is not interested in transporting any soldiers from the battlefield. Consider the fate of Paul’s teammate Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer): About halfway through the film, an assailant sets Albert on fire with a flamethrower. Albert is dragged desperately to a shallow pool of dirty water, where he is shot in front of Paul. The theatrics of the scene are played out with smoke and fire effects, including a close-up of Albert’s lifeless body engulfed in crackling flames—the exact kind of gratuitous use the Academy tends to favor. (There’s a reason the German tabloid Bild criticized the film as an example of so-called Oscar-Geilheitor “Oscar horn.”)
The moment is just one of many clumsy departures from the novel, where Albert has to have one of his legs amputated but doesn’t die. Instead, he is expelled to be fitted with a prosthesis. He emerges from the war as a wounded, desperate version of himself, struggling, like so many soldiers, to reintegrate into society. Substantially changing Albert’s narrative—opting for a simple death over a more nuanced story of survival—helps establish the film as a typical blockbuster, full of brawls and stunts, but lacking any genuine emotional punch.
Elsewhere at Berger’s All quiet, the soldiers die loud, noisy and glorious deaths. In the final act, Paul is killed in an almost operatic struggle – seconds before the truce takes effect. The camera follows him closely as he charges across a smoke-filled field, dodging enemy bullets, hitting someone in the face with a helmet and nearly suffocating in a muddy ditch. Just as Paul—and the viewer—thinks he might survive, a bayonet stabs him from behind. The camera’s zoomed-in view of this gory scene seems to be Berger’s substitute for real intimacy with the character. But the film never reveals exactly who Paul and his companions are beyond their naivety, their youth, and their resigned willingness to die for their country. As a result, such high-stakes moments fall flat.
The book understands the power of limitation. Remarque leaves out the details of Paul’s death. All the readers know is that it happened on a “quiet and still” day, that he “fell forward and lay upon the earth as if asleep,” and that “his countenance had an expression of calmness, as if he were almost glad at the end. Come.” Unlike the rest of the novel, which is told from Paul’s point of view, the last two paragraphs have third-person narration and are printed on their own page. The voice is distant, detached. On the page, as on the battlefield, no soldier is immune to the nameless toll of war.
Of course, a war movie can be both subtle and gruesome. Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, which won five Oscars in 1999, opens with one of the most chilling battle sequences in cinema, filled with blood and dirt stuck to the shaky cameras, artillery fire obliterating bodies and a soldier screaming for his mother. And in Spike Lee’s Vietnam War drama, Da 5 Bloods, the opening montage includes photographs and footage of the Kent State and Jackson assassinations, as well as the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, a Viet Cong officer. However, both films spend as much time developing their characters’ motivations and concerns as they do attending to the larger landscapes of carnage and death. They deliver war stories that are as introspective as they are action-packed, and that, too Da 5 Bloods, were criminally overlooked by the Oscars. This film’s sensitive portrayal of a group of aging black veterans dealing with both personal loss and America’s imperialist legacy deserves more recognition that All quiet now he enjoys.
Almost a century after its publication, the original All quiet—that is, the book—remains the most captivating version of the story. I’m still haunted by a chapter where Paul briefly visits his family and discovers how alienated he feels from home and the things that used to bring him joy, like reading. “Words, Words, Words—they’re not enough for me,” Paul observes quietly in his room. “I’m slowly putting the books back on the shelves. Never again.” Berger might not have thought such subdued and sober reflection would make for the most compelling scene. It’s not ostentatious and has no overt emotions. But the best movies can make even a quiet moment feel so consequential and explosive as a gruesome action sequence.