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From 1930 to 2022: Empathy, Entertainment, and the Western Front

Written by Bella Coyne

Twelve years after the end of The Great War, in 1930, American filmmaker Lewis Milestone began his maiden voyage in “talkies”. What a sea to embark on – the vast ocean of war epics. Milestone directed the first film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Free of German insignia, or any accents other than a vague British-derivative, there’s not much to indicate whose “side” the characters are on. This is purposeful. It is wildly effective in cultivating empathy – and public favor. The film sailed its way to winning Best Picture at the 3rd-ever Academy Awards. 

Fast forward ninety-two years: German filmmaker Edward Berger directed a new adaptation of All Quiet. This version was grittier, bloodier, and (since the MPAA exists now) rated R. It, too, was awarded Best Picture, this time at the 95th Academy Awards. The 2022 adaptation employs more heavily the practical effects and prosthetics available to us today. This results in less left to the imagination, and more grotesque depictions of life (and death) in the trenches. Berger’s All Quiet is distinctly German. It is a reimagining, a rejuvenation, a reminder – Berger emphasizes the horrors which this generation was not around to witness. 

Aaaaaand this is the point. 

In 1930, many of the cast and crew were Great War veterans themselves, and were consulted on the accuracy of trench warfare. The shot of the bloodied arms hanging dead on barbed wire was a suggestion from an extra who witnessed something similar in person. In person. 

It was not historical fiction. It was the result of a generation processing a war through artistic expression. Certainly, every single person who watched it in 1930 could connect on a personal level. This was by design: both Erich Maria Remarque and Lewis Milestone chose to portray the story as rather nation-neutral, so that the audience could see themselves in the characters and empathize with their misery. 

However, by 2022, enough time had passed that no one alive today was there to witness the Western Front. There would have been no other way to get the point across that war is bad, if the audience wasn’t A) all but transported to the trenches, and B) completely nauseated.  Thus, Edward Berger needed to create a film that pushed the boundaries of our collective desensitization. 

He did this by expanding the universe. The trailer says it is “based on” the novel, not that it is a direct adaptation. The film uses Paul, Kat, Tjaden, and the rest as the human anchors for the story; then stretches to include the full political scope of what was happening just before Armistice Day, in November of 1918. As the viewer, seeing not just their own personal stakes, but also the point of desperation which the whole European continent had reached, is doubly powerful. It creates an overwhelming sense of terror. 

Then, having educated the audience on the history with which they might not be familiar, Berger dug his heels into the mud – literally. The crew worked on an outdoor set which was three football fields long, and dug an entire trench system. They spent months in the trenches, caked in mud and wracked with explosions. Like its predecessor, the 2022 version used mostly practical effects for the full-scale battle scenes. But today’s culture allows for much more horror. So there are hundreds of prosthetic bodies, gruesome sound design, and gallons of blood and…various fluids. Just as Milestone’s film was considered the most violent of its time, so too is Berger’s.  

CGI technology is borderline miraculous. But, there’s nothing quite like watching a film which is grounded in actual, physical reality. Those of us that aren't 110 years old can’t quite recall what the First World War was like – so it’s up to historians and artists to teach us. Certainly the best way to do this is to create an anti-war film which makes you feel as though you’re waist-deep in mud, shell-shocked from battle, and terrified to your bones.

Another stark difference is that Berger’s version is in German, by Germans. It no longer attempts to neutralize. It draws attention to the fact that Germans, as well as French and Americans, suffered that kind of brutality. 110 years removed, it takes on an educational flavor, creating empathy for Europeans that wouldn’t have been possible in the years immediately following the war. The German language and dialects help paint a more immersive picture – as if to say, the Western Front was real. It happened to these people, and they spoke in this way. 

Many would argue there’s no such thing as an anti-war film; that if you’re pouring millions of dollars into simulating battle scenes, hiring the hottest actors of the time, and inviting people who have never been in combat to critique its realism and emotional effect, you’re missing the point. That argument has merit. But it’s not what we’re getting at. 

What we want to encourage to ask yourself is this: why must we remake, revamp, and re-enchant history? Are we so far removed from war in America that it takes the Academy Awards to make us care about its evils? Do hyper-realistic, ultra-violent war epics spark empathy, or do they simply entertain? And is it possible to do both? 

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