It is now about a quarter of a century ago that the German teacher Dr. N. caught one with a Stephen King book under the school desk, even though "Nothing New in the West" was on the curriculum. But his anger was rather mild, because everyone else had no book under the bench at all, but Tamagotchis. The electric eggs were also the reason why Dr. N. this generation of students (not entirely wrongly) had finally given up. "Read Erich Maria Remarque," he still said with a sigh, "you'll need that one day!"
The man was right, of course. Remarque's 1929 novel tells of the gruesome experiences of a young German soldier in the trenches of World War I, who represents an entire "lost generation". And in a year when another war broke out in Europe, the book is unfortunately particularly topical. There is also a remake. Surprisingly, after the US cinema version from 1930 and a British-American television production from the 1970s, it is the first German film adaptation of this German material. The new version was produced by the Netflix streaming service. Theatrical release is September 29, before the Movie then from October 28th on Netflix.
Although it has not yet received broader public and media response, "Nothing New in the West" has already been selected by a jury on behalf of German Films, the foreign representation of German film, as the German entry for the Oscar in the category "Best International Film". . Now that the work celebrated its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Monday, curiosity is naturally high: is the early praise justified and is the film a worthy choice in the German application for the Oscar?
Directed by Edward Berger. Among other things, the 52-year-old made the movie "Jack", some "Tatorte" and episodes of the series "Deutschland 83". He has also worked internationally, including with Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes. His version of "Nothing New in the West" was written in German. Even if Netflix did not want to give any information about the budget when asked, it must have been quite generous by German standards. Costume dramas are expensive, especially war films, and the film looks suitably opulent.
Remarque and Netflix are quite close when it comes to entertainment
There are significantly fewer films about the First World War than about the Second World War. Nevertheless, the first also has its classics, above all Stanley Kubrick's "Paths to Glory" (1957), which set the eternal trench standard for movie theater continued: Hardly any director came close to its labyrinthine mud fight. For example, recently tried Sam Mendes in "1917" with the aesthetic trick of making the whole film look like it was shot in a single take.
Fortunately, Berger doesn't bother with such technical gimmicks. His battle scenes are brutal, powerful and filmed without aesthetic manipulations. Above all, the eternal gray of wintry France, the cold that creeps into the bodies of the soldiers in their soaked uniforms, the frost that covers the men like a second enemy army are almost physically felt in the images in this film. Although Remarque wrote a first-person narrative, he often switches to "we" within the text. This experience of a collective experience is also conveyed by the film's icy, breathless images.
And in terms of content? Berger and his English-language screenwriting duo have expanded Remarque's book, which oscillates in style between reportage and fiction (and only later in the 1950s was given the suffix "novel" by the publisher), in some places significantly expanded. While the original moves almost exclusively in the world of the young soldier Paul and his comrades, who initially euphorically go to war "for the emperor, God and fatherland" and then experience the hell of trench warfare on the western front, the filmmakers are still moving another level. Parallel to the suffering of the young men, who are splashing with mud, blood, bones and brain mass, they tell of the tough struggles of Deputy Erzberger (Daniel Brühlwho also co-produced the film) to negotiate an armistice with the French.
The book ends in October 1918 - the film continues until the end of the war in November
In the famous end of the book, the hero Paul dies shortly before the end of the war "on a day that was so calm and quiet along the entire front that the army report was limited to the sentence that there was nothing new to report in the West". The filmmakers turn this depiction of a completely meaningless death in the face of inevitable defeat into a Hollywood showdown.
Paul, played by newcomer Felix Kammerer, does not die with them in October 1918, the film continues until November 11, 1918 at eleven o'clock - the time of the armistice. A classic dramaturge trick: the viewer knows early on and down to the minute when the horror will end. And is therefore all the more excited to see if the protagonist could still manage to hold out until then, while his comrades fall one after the other.
Does that still correspond to the spirit of Remarque's work, which owes its impact above all to this quiet, menacingly secondary finale at the end of a senseless and noisy war? At first glance, one is naturally tempted to say no. Here, art is once again sacrificed to the usual Netflix fuss, because the viewers are used to the banging around and the clock ticking all the time.
On the other hand: Remarque itself was anything but foreign to the typical stylistic devices of entertainment dramaturgy. Of course, his novel is a blatant counterpart to Ernst Jiinger's "In Stahlgewittern". But even he, the disillusioned war veteran, created moments in his book that probably arose more from his imagination than real experience.
For example, there is a scene in the novel where Paul and his friends meet three siren-like French women and swim across a river to sleep with them. Not that that wouldn't have been possible in theory; but in view of the rapes during the First World War, three French women waiting on the riverbank to sleep with German soldiers seems a bit surreal-fictional. Funnily enough, the filmmakers significantly defused that exact scene in the film. But in the longing not only to confront the viewer with shocking images, but also with scenes in the tradition of the comic relief to create, she and Remarque are certainly not entirely strangers to each other.
On the long way to the Oscar (the film has to make it onto the nomination list after it has been submitted), the work should have a very good chance. Apart from the fact that the Oscar Academy likes to award war and costume films, Remarque's old message and that of the remake is clear and unfortunately up-to-date: there is almost always a winner in war, but never a winner.
nothing new in the West, D/USA/GB 2022 - Director: Edward Berger. Book: Lesley Paterson, Ian Stokell. Camera: James Friend. With: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Daniel Brühl, Devid Striesow. Netflix, 147 minutes. Theatrical release: September 29. Streaming start: October 28th.