Netflix’s Oscar-Winning anti-war epic revisits a classic tale of World War I survival with disturbing visual and historical clarity
Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.
In my review of Come and See, I briefly talked about the responsibility of filmmakers when it comes to dramatizing the atrocities of wartime. The act of depicting war as a source for conflict in storytelling is its own moral battlefield; both war and storytelling inherently feature conflicts of ideals, and by mapping the senseless terror of war over an archetypical journey, one risks reducing the experience of wartime into something more “palatable” yet far more debased and diluted from whatever sense or morality can be gleaned from catastrophe. Hence Truffaut’s claim that there can never truly be an “anti-war” film–in the act of dramatizing war, infusing it with thrilling conflict and placing the audience as a spectator far removed from any sense of danger, war is glorified, and as such becomes another inevitable experience for another generation.
However, there are certain war stories that seem to retain a potency of their own across multiple conflict-laden eras–whether it’s because their characters are relatable enough for the audience to imprint themselves on them no matter the era, or that their themes are tragically so timeless that they speak to just how little the nature of war changes across centuries. In this decade, we’ll see the century mark of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. During the lifespan of Remarque’s novel about the horrors of World War I, the world has seen not just another World War, but three cinematic adaptations of the book–the first of which won the American Oscar for Best Picture in 1930, the year after the novel’s German publication. However, last year’s latest iteration, directed by prestige TV veteran Edward Berger, bears the distinction of being the first German adaptation of the novel–making it also the first adaptation of All Quiet that shares the same cultural perspective as its characters.
With a Netflix-sized budget, All Quiet employs a grueling amount of technical wizardry to bring Remarque’s novel to life in a far more visceral and gruesome fashion than previously possible. Viewers endure two and a half hours of mud-strewn bloodshed as the equally wide-eyed and traumatized Paul (Felix Kammerer) attempts to pass through the remaining weeks of World War I unscathed. With its unflinching depiction of bomb-torn bodies, crumbling villages, and ramshackle, primal trench warfare, 2022’s All Quiet follows in the footsteps of not just 1930 original film, but other anti-war epics like Come and See, The Thin Red Line, and 1917. But what sets the film apart from its previous adaptations is how it controversially removes a key element of the film’s source material and instead shifts its focus to a larger historical context.
In the original novel and subsequent adaptations, there is a reprieve from the war in which Paul and his comrades return home only to learn just how much war has made it impossible for them to mentally do so. There are brief moments of respite from battle in this version of All Quiet, be it in stealing a goose from a nearby farm or in fleeting interactions with townspeople; however, Berger’s film never allows Paul to leave the immediate horrors of battle. Instead, All Quiet occasionally pivots to Daniel Brühl’s Matthias Erzberger, the German official thanklessly tasked with negotiating his country’s surrender. Erzberger feebly pleas to end the war–but to do so, Germany faces a future of poverty and humiliation. To accept such terms would remove any meaning from the deaths of German soldiers in the eyes of more nationalistic individuals; however, to choose to keep fighting a losing battle instead would ensure even more senseless deaths. In his director’s commentary, Berger notes how the real-life Erzberger was encouraged to be the figurehead for armistice negotiations because he was seen as a diplomat and not a military presence; however, it’s this precise reason that allowed the military to absolve themselves of national shame, claiming “the politicians had sold out Germany”–a sentiment that would give rise to the Nazi party and the inevitability of World War II. Erzberger would go on to be assassinated in the years following the War, allegedly out of a dual reaction to his postwar financial policies as well as his role in Germany’s surrender.
All Quiet on the Western Front is frontloaded with brutality, far more so than its other incarnations, but it’s the true “quiet” of these diplomatic sequences that make the explicit violence of Berger’s war scenes truly horrifying. Through Erzberger, we see the larger historical machinations behind the suffering of Paul and his countrymen, with their life-and-death struggles reduced to tactics and strategy even at the climax of years of aggression. There’s no focus on technical or special effects prowess here, nor are there rousing pleas for human decency or goodwill that would cap a more propagandistic wartime tale. Instead, we see Erzberger encounter a trolley problem on a nauseating historical scale–where the lives of his countrymen are used as pawns in a war of attrition. By depicting Erzberger’s fruitless struggles to find peace while at the mercy of two war-hungry military forces, we see just how ruthless the impersonal war machine at the core of All Quiet and its many iterations truly is. It’s a sentiment that echoes another classic World War I film–Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory–in eviscerating those who command atrocities from the same level of spectatorship as the audience of these films.
It also allows for a unique glimpse into the “German perspective” Berger sought to capture in this new adaptation–here, using Remarque’s culturally-transcendent novel to reckon with decades of guilt and tragedy, and how the seeds of past horrors were given a dreadful opportunity to flourish into something more nefarious. It’s this critical eye towards Germany’s entire past–while championing those who earnestly sought to preserve their humanity even as they were pushed to become beasts–that makes this version of All Quiet a remarkable film, and one that succeeds in its anti-war aspirations. While All Quiet has fittingly been lauded for its technical achievements–it’s these cruelly intimate moments that allow this latest adaptation of Remarque’s novel to find new resonance and potency nearly a century after its publication.
Capelight and MPI’s new 4K UHD release is notable for its own historic achievements when it comes to physical media. All Quiet on the Western Front is the first Netflix title to win an International Feature Film Oscar, the Netflix original film with the most Oscar wins (4), and is now the first Netflix Oscar-winner to be released on 4K UHD. With reference-quality picture and sound unencumbered by the limits of streaming bandwidths and an extensively detailed commentary by director Edward Berger, this 4K UHD of All Quiet on the Western Front is not to be missed.
Capelight and MPI present All Quiet on the Western Front in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 in Dolby Vision and HDR10 on the 4K UHD disc and 1080p on the accompanying Blu-ray Disc. On both discs, the primary audio track is a Dolby Atmos track in the film’s original German audio. 5.1-Channel Surround Sound options are available in English and French. This appears to be the same Capelight disc issued in European countries–as such, both discs are Region-Free and can be played by any player internationally. A detailed breakdown of language options for the film’s main feature is below.
Compared to the 1930 original adaptation, All Quiet on the Western Front takes advantage of 93 years’ worth of advancements in cinematography to realize the horrors of war in a viscerally effective yet broad color palette. The HDR10-enhanced color spectrum vividly brings forward searing reds and cold blues, particularly in the bloody murk of trench mud. Textures are well realized from frame one, amidst the bombing-illustrated cloudy sky of a French forest at dawn. Sequences heavy on smoke and fog are surprisingly low on artifacting elements without resorting to any DNR smearing or banding.
The default German Dolby Atmos track is an impressive workout for any sound system, with minute specificity and attention paid to sonic details throughout. Bullets whizz by, tracking across multiple speakers; clever details like the sound of machine gunfire as foley for onscreen sewing machines hit hard. Dialogue is primarily front-loaded speaker-wise, though the cacophony of shouting soldiers on the battlefield is effectively ghostly across multiple channels.
As mentioned before, this is the U.S. version of an internationally-available physical media release, and the film’s audio options truly make All Quiet on the Western Front a globally accessible affair. For more prestige titles, Netflix dubbing efforts are usually a comparable step up from other films; should one choose to watch All Quiet on the Western Front in their preferred language other than the film’s original German, there are a whopping 10 languages available, in addition to six descriptive audio tracks and 17 subtitle language options.
Audio Options: German, English, French, Spanish (European & Latin American), Italian, Turkish, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, and Hungarian.
Descriptive Audio Options: German, English, French, Spanish (European & Latin American), and Italian.
Subtitle Options: English, French, German, Spanish (European & Latin American), Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Turkish, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, and Hungarian.
SDH Subtitle Options: English, German, and Spanish (Latin American).
The film’s Special Features are available on both the included 4K UHD and the Blu-ray copies of the film.
- Audio Commentary with director Edward Berger: Berger is quite candid about his approach and experiences to the production in this English-language commentary track–and with this being his first commentary, it’s fun to see him get caught up in trying to discuss details about certain shots or sequences before the scene is over. In particular, Berger’s discussion of the film’s new elements is worth a listen–notably how the negotiation of the Armistice featuring actor Daniel Brühl provides a necessary framing device for not just the main action of the film, but for the other World War to come.
- Making-Of: A behind-the-scenes featurette produced by Netflix, extensively detailing the production of the film from initial location scouting through the editing and scoring process–with all of the explosions and muck of production in between. This featurette was released on YouTube alongside All Quiet’s streaming debut. Of note, the film’s Making-Of featurette is subtitled in German for cinematographer James Friend’s English dialogue, in English for all dialogue but Friend’s, and is fully subtitled in French, Spanish, and Italian.
- Promotional Materials: Includes a German and English trailer for the film (2:19) and two English teaser trailers (2:16 & 1:52).
- Booklet: The packaging for All Quiet on the Western Front is a sizable (and fragile) media book-style case, with a 24-page booklet bookended by the 4K UHD and Blu-ray Discs. The booklet contains an interview with director Edward Berger titled “Sharing the German Perspective,” as well as an interview with historian Professor Daniel Schönpflug on the historical context of this new adaption of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel.
All Quiet on the Western Front is now available in a dual 4K UHD/Blu-ray package courtesy of Capelight.