I’ve been workshopping a theory as of late about the expansive and experimental filmmaking that has been going on for quite a few years now in the war genre of filmmaking. Because many of the action set pieces and narrative decisions are generally similar to their film’s contemporaries, filmmakers and crews have to become more creative in how they depict material that’s been regurgitated over and over again in the medium. It was the case for modern hits like “Dunkirk” and “1917,” and I was excited to see how Edward Berger’s Netflix stunner “All Quiet on the Western Front” chose to take a new angle at the known source of history.
It seems like every year we should mark out a date on the calendar for when the new ”extremely visceral and raw” war odyssey hits movie theaters or streaming services because we go through this cycle on an annual basis. The best of these (“Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line,” among others) portray the brutality of war in the grandest and most horrifying ways. They’re balanced perfectly with the in-between moments – the ones of comradery and pride for the feeling of fighting for a common goal, and idea not unlike a sports dramedy or a courtroom procedural, but on a scale few other genres can try to match.
The question for me was whether “All Quiet on the Western Front” was going to be able to match these rhythmic patterns and deliver a film that compounds style and aggression with heart. In a vacuum, Berger and co. successfully pull off a film that feels much larger than its streaming service tag suggests (it’s truly a visual achievement in a genre boiling with them), but it’s still not without its few hiccups along the way.
But I want to start off positive with a film that has quite a few of them. “All Quiet on the Western Front” fires on all cylinders (quite literally) from the opening frame. Its framing device that sets up a few of the set pieces are inventive and original – something that films in this genre struggle with, and it gives the film steam heading into an exposition that doesn’t take its foot off the gas for too long.
Felix Kammerer leads a cast of overly eager kids ready to enroll in Germany’s side of World War I, unaware of the horror and darkness that the battlefield brings and the harsh reality that he and his friends may not all return home alive. The story is told in loose vignettes and are tied together by the periodic set of negotiations between the German and French sides of the war.
At its best moments, “All Quiet on the Western Front” plays into its self-proclaiming anti-war sentiment. The thematic elements of fighting for someone else’s war and the careless loss of life ring true throughout large battle sequences that are heart-poundingly riveting and technically brilliant. It’s a constant onslaught of violence that is incredibly immersive due to its stunning sound design and picture-perfect visual spectacle.
Its few aspects that hold it back come in the third act. As the story begins to wrap up, “All Quiet on the Western Front” takes a sharp turn for the sake of one more grand finale. For a film that pushes its own boundaries in a 147 minute runtime, it is the one piece of the puzzle that feels like it doesn’t quite fit. The film rarely strains for dramatic purpose, but it makes the grave mistake of doing so right when it had its ending served on a silver platter.
The film also struggles to make a profound statement beyond “war is bad,” which is both obvious and routinely done. “All Quiet on the Western Front” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it strives to make steps at improving every bit of the wheel. Every shot, every sound, and every visual treat is one step better than its recent contemporaries in the genre, and that makes it a quality watch and a highly commendable piece of filmmaking.
Director Edward Berger and cinematographer James Friend come together to create 2022’s signature war epic “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which pushes stylistic boundaries for the genre not seen since before the pandemic. It is terrifying and riveting at its best moments, and slightly formulaic at its lesser ones. Combined with a saddening performance by Felix Kammerer, the film is one of Netflix’s best ones of the year.