Imagine, if you can, politicians who promote nationalism in order to dupe and exploit their citizens. Imagine gullible young men drinking the kool-aid, demonizing their neighbors, and signing up to fight under the influence of hero fantasies.

I could be talking about Russians believing their could easily conquer Ukraine, only to discover that they’re governed by egomaniacal fools, and that they are, in fact, outmatched. I could be talking about American soldiers believing they’re moving into Iraq to save the world from weapons of mass destruction, only to realize that they are advancing the interests of capitalism on foreign oil fields.

Fresh-faced recruits revel in the glory of the adventure ahead. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]

In this case, I’m talking about German filmmaker Edward Berger’s book-to-screen adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 German-language novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

I’ve never read that novel, nor have I seen the famous American film adaptation that was released two years later — a milestone in feature filmmaking directed, appropriately, by Lewis Milestone. But I know both by their reputations for running counter to the cliches of most war movies. And, as I’ve developed quite an allergy to the way the genre often feeds destructive fantasies and glorifies violence, I’ve been curious. It turns out my suspicion that this one would be different was well-founded. This adaptation — the first German-made adaptation for the screen — is now streaming on Netflix, and it’s an outstanding achievement of war-is-hell testimony.

Berger, collaborating with screenwriters Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, avoids the most egregious errors of most filmmakers audacious enough to take on such a challenge. The 2022 All Quiet is uncompromising in its depiction of wartime folly: We watcbh young men inspired by nationalist propaganda, recruited into military service with promises of glory, and then dumped directly into chaotic bloodbaths in which millions of them make meaningless sacrifices, their bodies disappearing forever into bogs of mud and carnage, their promise wasted by the whims of clowns and fools. Berger never gives us the luxury of a hero fantasy, a quest formula, or a sentimental turn. Every time we think we might find our way to some note of relief or inspiration, we are denied that comfort. This is not a film that lets us get away with any easy rationalizations. We won’t come away thinking about any one character’s virtue, or favoring one nation’s vision over another. We will come away understanding that the cost to the minds, hearts, and bodies on any side of a war is unconscionable.

Not-so-fresh-faced recruits begin to realize that combat isn’t as glorious as they thought. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]

When people talk about the original 1930 film, they tend to talk about its battle scenes of unprecedented scale, involving a cast of thousands. It is, in a sense, the ur-text of war movies. Thanks to All Quiet 1930, we’ve become accustomed to such vast spectacles; they’re commonplace in even the most disposable superhero movies now. And though the combat here is dramatized with predictably harrowing realism, I’m impressed by the fact that Berger seems uninterested in any “wow” factor. He’s not Christopher “Dunkirk” Nolan or Sam “1917” Mendes or even Steven “Saving Private Ryan” Spielberg, striving to strike us slack-jawed with the shock-and-awe ferocity of front-line fighting. Berger’s more interested in keeping us close to a small band of brothers, tuning our attention to their relationships as they slowly awaken to how fully they’ve been duped into destruction and self-destruction.

Our central character — let’s not pretend he’s a hero — is Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a young man whose pack of friends is easily persuaded to put their lives on the line for ideals they believe in, and so he pretends to be old enough enlist. It’s almost funny how quickly their enthusiasm melts in the heat of combat as soon as they get out of their transport. Almost. Little do they know that they are pawns now in a game played by leaders with very poor judgment. And no matter how many nightmares Paul survives, no matter how lucky he might be to make it to the finish line alive, he’s still under the direction of madmen who may not be willing to follow their own chain of command. General (Devid Striesow), the closest thing to a cartoon in a film that otherwise avoids caricature, would rather spend more lives out of spite, at hardly any risk to himself, than follow instructions to surrender.

A flare in the dark. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]

Paul’s friends are Kropp (Aaron Hilmer), Müller (Moritz Klaus), and Tjaden (Edin Hasanović), and while these are not occasions that help us get to know their histories or personalities very well, these actors all make strong enough impressions that we care about the youthful ignorance of their characters. Eventually they’re advised by “Kat” Katczinsky, a charismatic and experienced soldier, played with charisma by Albrecht Schuch. Almost all of the film’s best scenes involve Schuch. He’s the brothers’ anchor, their role model, and the one soldier mysterious enough to inspire their curiosity.

The only face familiar to me in this production is Daniel Brühl’s. He plays Magnus Erzberger, the young and squirmy politician leading the German delegation appealing for an end to the slaughter. Thibault de Montalembert makes an impression as French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who refuses to make it easy for Erzberger.

Daniel Bruhl plays a desperate negotiator as Germany’s failure becomes certain. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]

All Quiet was famously praised in 1929 as the kind of story that just might help save the world from such madness in the future. So it wasn’t easy to watch it unfold on the screen while news headlines echoed with the blasts of Putin’s 2022 folly in Ukraine, which has similarly deceived and destroyed so many young Russians, to say nothing of the Ukrainians fighting and dying to save their people from cruelty. And it’s hard to forget how my own fellow Americans supported sending so many of our own promising young people into Iraq on false pretenses, not so long ago, paying the price of their lives for the sake of oil fields. Alas, art has not saved the world from wars waged by arrogant madmen. Not yet.

That’s not for lack of artists trying. I still believe that “the play’s the thing” to awaken the conscience of a nation. I think the problem lies with a disinterested audience, one that wants entertainment instead of challenge, one that wants to become intoxicated with visions of power instead of humbled by the truth. Audiences prefer hero stories. Audiences prefer the appealing fantasy that we can change the world with coercive violence if we have “God on our side.” Audiences get stirred up by the figure of William “Braveheart” Wallace leading a rebellion against an evil empire in the name of “freedom.”

But we need to witness and bear witness to the damage that such seductive storytelling has done… and is doing. We need to see how easily nations can be duped by charismatic schemers and power-mad manipulators. We need to see how fresh-faced young people can be stirred up into a frenzy, eager to go out and fight for glory under the intoxicating influence of national pride. We need to see how generations can be persuaded to ignore evidence and embrace lies solely so they can make their enemies suffer. We need to see how the con men who lead such destructive campaigns could not care less if their lies lead their followers into suffering or death. We need to see such leaders being smug, arrogant, spoiled, stubbornly committed to diseased ideals. We need to attend to these truthful testimonies in art, and we need to talk about how they apply to this present darkness in the world.

And here’s another chance to witness and then to bear that witness.

German forces bear the flames of judgment as French forces advance. [Image from the Netflix trailer.]

What a relief it was to watch an epic war film that does not serve up some egotistical director’s “vision” that is ultimately about proving something or one-upping somebody else. I should never watch a war movie and find myself impressed by the person choreographing the simulated carnage. I should never come away talking about the director or his place in the pantheon of war-movie filmmakers. Instead, I should have my disbelief suspended, my imagination challenged, my heart opened to the possibility of empathy, understanding, and grief. As the great Glenn Kenny writes at RogerEbert.com, “The in-the-trenches tracking shots that Stanley Kubrick crafted for Paths of Glory … are now steady hand-held digital panoramas of exposed viscera and agonized writhing. Filmmakers have arguably lost the plot, turning ‘War is hell’ into a ‘Can you top this?’ competition.”

Strangely, Kenny writes this as he finds Berger guilty of just that kind of showmanship. On this rare occasion, I disagree with him. I can’t think of a single sequence in All Quiet that jarred me loose from believing what I was seeing, or that made me think about the logistics of the filmmaking. The only other film I found myself thinking about was the Kafka-esque claustrophobia of Son of Saul, a film about a human trapped like a rat in the maze of collective madness. And as I found that film one-of-a-kind in its hellscape storytelling, I mean that as a compliment.

Seasoned soldier Stanislaus “Kat” Stanislaus Katczinsky tends to live one step ahead of everyone else.[Image from the Netflix trailer.]

Okay, I take that back. There were a few moments of distraction. The movie’s sinister three-pulse motif by composer Volker Bertelmann reminded me of John William’s famous Jaws theme, foreboding that everything is about to go wrong. And I frequently found myself thinking “This reminds me of a moment from [Insert Other War Film Title Here].” But then I’d catch myself and realize that those films probably took a lot of ideas from the original All Quiet on the Western Front film — or novel. And that includes the AT-AT attack on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back! So it’s not All Quiet‘s fault. In fact, this is all to the original’s credit.

There was one other moment that jarred me out of my enthrallment. That “Leonardo Dicaprio Points at the Television” meme (you know the one — it’s a shot from Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) has killed so many moments in so many movies for me. Count this among the casualties, as there’s a moment when one worried soldier, looking out at a brief pause in the punishment, says, “It’s so… quiet.”

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think this is the first war movie I’ve whole-heartedly recommended since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (which this movie loudly respects with an early salute to Malick’s signature treetop-inclined camera). Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old may be the most essential World War One movie ever made. But when it comes to storytelling, this is my favorite war film of the 21st century.