© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Three films based on Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel capture war on the Western Front

Audrey Kupferberg, seated at a desk in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg

World War One seems light years away. More than 100 years ago, in fact. Fighting occurred in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Pacific, and Asia. France, England, the U.S., and others of the Allies faced Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Approximately 9 million soldiers met their deaths on the battlefields, and 5 million civilians died from the side effects of war – hunger and sickness.

Through the years, three exceptional films have been made that are based on the classic 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. Lewis Milestone directed a superb adaptation starring young Lew Ayres which was released at the dawn of sound films in 1930. In 1979, a lesser-known television film appeared which was directed by Delbert Mann and starred Richard Thomas. Most recently, a third screen adaptation, a German/U.S./U.K. coproduction is in theaters and streaming on Netflix. This version was directed and co-written with great ability by Edward Berger, and has 9 Oscar nods and 14 BAFTA nominations.

These films take the viewer into the trenches, the muddy infested fox holes, of World War One. They take us, in detail, into the soul of a few German soldiers, particularly a recent school boy named Paul Baumer. The screenplays delve deeply into the power of nationalism, how the older generation of diplomats, politicians, top military officers, and even teachers, use the tactic of national pride to convince teenaged school boys to head into battle.

In the new version, the plight of the soldier is at the forefront. We see these poor souls missing their families. Some are fraught with hunger and stoop to stealing food. We see dying boys and men on the battlefields and in makeshift infirmaries. Some are brain-damaged by poison gases. Some are missing limbs.

For a viewer who has never been to war, and certainly has not experienced the anguish of battle as played out on the Western Front of World War One, it is difficult to judge the authenticity of these three films. The 1930 version was filmed with the taste of a then contemporary mainstream moviegoer in mind. There is plenty of suffering and cruelty, but conveyed with a certain subtlety, even a certain poetry -- particularly the famous ending with Paul reaching for a butterfly.

The 2022 version is so much more gruesome. The battlefields seem more accurate. The face of young Austrian actor Felix Kammerer, as Paul, is a poster for the evils of war. His facial make-up, with generous helpings of mud and filth, seems white, ghostly, in the dramatic lighting. Even to a viewer who has no experience with war, it is clear that Paul’s innocence has been massacred in trench warfare, though he lives on to fight in the next skirmish.

When I watch the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front, I know I am watching a movie. When I watch the new version, I get lost in the realism of war. It’s a disturbing experience. Twelve years after shooting the 1930 film, Hollywood actor Lew Ayres declared himself a conscience objector at the entrance of the U.S. in World War II. It was a bold and controversial move which lost him the support of many in Hollywood. Later Ayres did serve as a first aid instructor and later as a medic.

I remember my late husband Rob Edelman and I standing in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in the late 1980s. Rob spotted Lew Ayres crossing the entrance hall. He quickly sped in pursuit of Ayres to shake his hand and tell him how much he respected him for his valor. It was quite a moment.

All Quiet on the Western Front – especially the 1930 and 2022 adaptations, are different in nature one from the other, but both seem to me to be brilliant dramatic interpretations of the horror and repulsion of war.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content