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A century later, with nothing new on the front line


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The Conversation

Ruth Gutiérrez Delgado

Professor of Screenwriting, Epistemology and Audiovisual Poetics

On the first page of his novel, All Quiet at the Frontwritten in 1929 and set in the First World War, Erich Maria Remarque (pseudonym of Erich Paul Remark) makes a warning and a declaration of intent.

One might wonder what Edward Berger, director of the new film adaptation of Remarque's novel, the first of German nationality, has intended. The film was awarded four Oscars at the last edition of the awards: best foreign language film, best production design , best cinematography and best soundtrack.

Berger is not, as Remarque was, a survivor of the Great War who turns to literature as a cathartic means of overcoming the trauma. Nevertheless, his anti-war reinterpretation of the novel is also functional: it seems intended to express a reflection or perhaps the confluence of several thoughts on the German report , its collective identity in the course of the twentieth century and its actuality.

Logically, this revisionism is not neutral. Compared to the novel, there is a change of perspective and a departure from literalism. Therefore, the relevance or not of Berger's film has raised some criticism in Germany. One of them (the most internship) points to a politicaldiscussion on the justification of war and rearmament in Europe. However, the most latent controversy points to the breaking of the pact of silence about the feeling of guilt in Germany.

Too much blood, sweat and tears

Like the novel, Berger's film tells the story of Paul Bäumer (played by the Austrian actor Felix Kammerer) as a young conscript in the Imperial German Army during the First World War. At the heart of the novel beats, among other things, the idea that "war has brutalized us".

As mentioned, the anti-war dimension is present in both stories, although in a more explicit and total way in Berger's work. In it, the omission of the agents of indoctrination, the absence of elements of contrast between the ordinary life of young people and life at the front or the disappearance of the dialectic between the spiritual and the material dominate the speech.

While Remarque is more subtle in his criticism, and concentrates it on the senselessness of war and on the distinction between State and Homeland, in Berger the Army appears as guilty of the tragedy, because of a kind of military warmongering disconnected from the reality of the people, as opposed to a more condescending and friendly State.

Also the ending of the novel and the film diverge. Remarque ends the story of Paul Bäumer one month before the signature of the Armistice. Berger, on the other hand, makes it coincide with the tragic end of the young soldier. Thus, he fosters the pathos by exaggerating the tragic setback in the six hours that historically separated the signature of the Armistice from its entrance in force.

Remarque was not looking for this effect. The end of the novel takes place on a day when there was no news at the front. Berger makes it coincide with the only day when there was. This small detail substantially modifies the meaning of the story and makes the film's degree scroll fallacious.

Versions of a fateful experience

In 1930, the American director Lewis Milestone adapted Remarque's novel for the first time, turning the story into a classic war film. With it, he won the Oscar for best film.

In Europe it was not without controversy. In that decade of decline, in addition to the proximity in time, the wound of the war was still open, the economic crisis had just exploded and National Socialism was advancing in Germany. These factors hindered the reception of the film, which was banned in several countries or screened with censored scenes, and the consideration of Remarque himself in his own country.

The second adaptation of the novel was for television, in 1979. Directed by the American Delbert Mann, it was a recovery of Remarque's story, reaching a result B with an air of filmed theater.

Berger's film, produced by a platform, is characterized by the stylization of the image thanks to a careful photography that seems to want to recreate a claustrophobic environment.

Berger uses visual metaphors to show how the soldiers mimic the leaden gray of the battlefield sky, or are greened by the moss of the mud flats in which they fight hand-to-hand. It is a stylistic success, insofar as it expresses their annihilation as human beings.

Moreover, self-reflection predominates more than the narration of events. This weakens the strength of a script composed of almost pictorial portraits, united only by a protagonist who is still alive and who embodies the eyes of the viewer.

Not "only facts count for us", but also feelings.

The devastation wrought by war finds another aesthetic correlate in the soundtrack composed by Volker Bertelmann. Through the thunderous and insistent force of three notes sustained in time, Bertelmann instills an anti-heroic judgment that envelops the entire narrative.

While the experiences of the young Paul Bäumer are rich in psychological nuances, the music contains the feeling of ruin, agony and commiseration with which the characters on the German side must be judged. It is the melody of pain. From euphoria to disappointment, one gradually witnesses the brutalization mentioned by Remarque in his novel. At the origin is the enthusiasm that leads the protagonist to commit recklessness, lying about his age to enlist in the army. Then comes the disappointment that awakens the desire to flee from there.

War cinema brings humanity face to face with its worst miseries. Although, in the novel, Remarque adopts a light, everyday air, making language a vehicle and not an obstacle, in Berger's version the cinematographic language is full of affective density. Expression takes precedence: feelings are captured in close-ups, lost glances, with hardly any dialogue.

Nevertheless, the novel can mislead an inattentive reader until he comes across an iron thought, for example: "We have lost the sense of other relationships because they are artificial. Only facts count for us", "the war has swept us away" or "while they proclaimed service to the state as sublime, we already knew that the fear of death is much more intense". In the film, iron takes the form of a musical score.

Edward Berger may have managed to dismantle a little more of the airs of heroic epicness that sometimes rebound in our hearts with his film. But, by showing an unsalvageable horror and a hopeless vision of humanity, he has terribly consolidated tragic heroism.