The anti-war message of the Oscar nominated film seems to resonate with particular urgency in today's world writes Dr Britta Jung, German Studies, School of Modern Languages
The film’s nomination for Best Picture was particularly noteworthy since only 14 non-English language films have received nominations in the category to date since the award debuted in 1929. That was also the year German writer Erich Maria Remarque's novel of the same name and Berger’s source material was published in a blaze of publicity in Germany and abroad. In 1930, Lewis Milestone's English-language adaptation of Im Westen nichts Neues for the big screen was among the first films to take home the trophy.
Even today, Milestone’s film is widely considered genre-defining and one of the best American epics in the history of filmmaking. Classified as culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant, it entered the United States National Film Registry in 1990 and routinely ranks highly in surveys within the creative industry. This enthusiastic embrace of Im Westen nichts Neues by an English-speaking readership (Remarque) and audience (Milestone) may come as a surprise given the story’s German focal point. It may also be a surprise that it took more than nine decades for the first German-language adaptation to see the light of day.
The enthusiasm for the novel and first film among English speakers can perhaps best be explained by the mood of the interwar period in the Anglo-American political debate, with both the US and Britain experiencing an intensely polemical peace movement that shaped domestic and international policies. Anti-war narratives like Remarque’s harrowing description of ordinary boys and men that find themselves confronted with the existential threat of modern warfare fell on fertile ground.
The climate changed only a few years later. Neither Milestone nor his Hollywood peers continued to make pacifist films once the Second World War broke out, with Hugh Harman's short Peace on Earth (1939) and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) notable exceptions. The entry of the US into WWII spurred Hollywood to invest in war films that were 'pacifist’ in the sense that they were explicitly anti-Nazi and the new world war.
This said, in the context of Anglo-American interwar pacificism, the story of Im Westen nichts Neues was successful not despite but because of its focus on the German experience. As Pauline Kael contends in her review of the original film, "war always seems like a tragic waste when told from the point of view of the losers". Both novel and film were praised for embracing an experiential aesthetics of horror and agony that leaves behind the often typical glorification and romanticisation of war.
In contrast to the positive reception in the English-speaking world, the German reception to the book and film of Im Westen nichts Neues was split and violent in the extreme as it fell into a period of increasing political instability and partisan radicalisation in the late phase of the Weimar Republic. Disputes about the then-still novel practice of synchronisation of foreign-language films added yet another point of contention with regard to Milestone’s adaptation among German critics and audiences.
While the political left condemned Remarque’s refusal to take a political stand and criticised Im Westen nichts Neues for its failure to explain the socio-political causes of war by focussing on the experience of is protagonist, the strongest voices against the novel and film came from the emerging Nazis and their ideological allies. They rejected it due to what they saw as an anti-German message that not only tarnished the memory of the valiant soldiers but the very idea of a heroic war that leads to epic triumph.
The campaign against Im Westen nichts Neues proved successful: Milestone’s partially censored film was briefly outlawed soon after its German release in December 1930, before being permanently banned in 1933 when the National Socialists rose to power. In a similar vein, Remarque’s novel was publicly burned during the notorious Berlin book-burning ceremony on May 10th 1933. In 1938, Remarque’s German citizenship was revoked and he stayed in exile in Switzerland, France and the US for the remainder of his life.
Even after the Second World War, Remarque and his work did not achieve the same status as in the Anglo-American sphere due to sensibilities around wartime memory and Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung. German author and Holocaust survivor Edgar Hilsenrath noted that "no other German author has ever been as successful, yet vehemently attacked as Remarque".
So, how exactly does Berger’s Oscar-winning, German-language adaptation fit into this picture? While Remarque has garnered more interest since the 1980s, it is most notably the shift in German visual culture and film production that enabled Berger’s Im Westen nichts Neues.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that Berger’s adaptation has been commissioned by Netflix. After all, the streaming service’s global strategy has proven instrumental in the shift from German heritage films that are primarily produced for a national audience to a transnational narrative strategy that is now aimed at an international audience. This ‘Netflixisation’ of films intertwines local content with transnational narratives and aesthetic frameworks that audiences around the world can easily tune into.
Im Westen nichts Neues has from the very beginning attracted an international readership and audience. This has allowed Berger to avoid potential pitfalls of German 20th-century memory culture and cultural history, and adapt the story for a contemporary global audience. Accordingly, there are some significant changes from the source material. This includes the addition of a second storyline following Daniel Brühl's Matthias Erzberger, a German politician and leading opponent of the continuation of the war.
After successfully lobbying German High Command, Erzberger finds himself negotiating an armistice with the Allied Powers in Compiègne. The well-dined and dressed dignitaries who argue about technicalities render a stark contrast to the soldiers in the trenches. Dirt, hunger, pain, and death are ubiquitous here and the youthful enthusiasm for the heroic adventure of the protagonist Paul Bäumer and his classmates soon turns into a lifeless endurance.
The brief respites behind the front line only highlight the fragile liminality of their experience. The individual battles remain nameless and – with the lack of progress that is highlighted in the film’s brief epilogue – ultimately meaningless, especially in the grand scheme of natural history that visually ankers the events through a number of wide shots of untouched and pristine nature.
Indeed, battles provide the mere backdrop for Berger’s hyperrealistic and shockingly raw mélange of ways soldiers kill and get killed. What Remarque and Milestone infer, Berger spells out: The soldiers – young and/or of humble background – are nothing but cogs in an all-consuming machine of war that is operated by decision-makers whose life and livelihood remain unimpacted.
Given the Russian invasion of Ukraine six months before the premiere of Berger’s adaptation and little more than a year before the Oscars, the anti-war message of his Im Westen nichts Neues seems to resonate with particular urgency. Surprised by Ukraine’s resolve in the face of aggression and the reaction from the international community, Russian president Vladimir Putin was ultimately forced into a partial mobilisation, hastily putting conscripts in uniform, and equipping them with old weaponry in order to put bodies at the frontline to fight for his (senseless) territorial ambitions. This is indeed an eerie real-life echo of Berger’s opening sequence.
In another addition to Remarque’s source material, Berger's opening shots show the death of a soldier at the Western front. His body is subsequently stripped of his uniform and the uniform is sent to the home front, washed, mended and redistributed to the newly enlisted Paul Bäumer who returns to the front, only to die there himself 18 months later.
The author would like to thank Dr Christiane Schönfeld for her insights into Weimar culture and the initial reception of Im Westen nichts Neues as well as Drs Stephan Ehrig, Benjamin Schaper and Elizabeth Ward for sharing their thoughts on the topic of contemporary German visual culture and the introduction of their forthcoming book Entertaining German Culture.
This article originally appeared on RTE Brainstorm