The director of the first German film adaptation of the classic 1928 anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front has said he hopes that a “German perspective” on the impact of war on the aggressor country would leave its mark.
“Hopefully it helps to understand that nothing good can come from war,” Edward Berger said of his adaptation – the third time that Erich Maria Remarque’s work has been given the cinematic treatment – at its premiere at the Toronto film festival. “We all know it, but we seem to be forgetting it at every turn.”
Remarque’s novel describes the calamitous effect of the first world war from the perspective of school leaver Paul Bäumer. It depicts the mental and physical anguish he and his close friends suffer as well as the alienation they feel from family and the rest of society. Bäumer lies about his age to fight for Germany, responding with euphoria to a patriotic appeal by his teacher. The novel, in German Im Westen Nichts Neues (nothing new in the west), sold 2.5m copies in the first 18 months after appearing in print and was translated into 22 languages.
Berger said that after two previous adaptations, in 1930 by the American director Lewis Milestone, which won an Academy Award, and almost 50 years later by another American, Delbert Mann, he felt it was time to grasp the opportunity to tell it from the “singular perspective” of a German.
Asked in an interview in Spiegel magazine why it had taken so long to have a German adaptation of a German literary classic, Berger said: “In Germany, the memory of world war one was displaced by memories of German atrocities committed in world war two”.
In addition, he said, contrary to Britons and Americans, for whom the genre of a war film is “synonymous with the telling of heroic tales”, Germans had nothing positive with which to connect these wars. Consequently, there had for decades been little or no appetite for making a German version of the film.
Berger said he had been attracted by the chance to “tell this story now, from the point of view of a societal understanding which is very specifically German, that embraces the guilt that is also connected to the memory of the first world war”. He said he had made a film that tried to “mirror those feelings with which we have all grown up, with which my children are still growing up”.
Germany’s attitude towards its military was far more critical and ambivalent than in other countries, due to its experience of war, he added. “For us it has a lot to do with shame, with feelings of guilt and pain,” he said. “This is precisely what we wanted to convey.”
The two and a half hour film, largely made during the Covid lockdown with its muddy battle scenes filmed in the Czech Republic, is due for general release in German later this month.
It has been chosen as Germany’s entry for the foreign language Oscar.
When Lewis Milestone’s film was released in December 1930, it created a huge stir in Germany. Recognising its potential to stir anti-war feelings, Joseph Goebbels, the then Gauleiter, or regional leader of the Nazi party in Berlin, helped organise a protest at an art nouveau Berlin cinema in which members of the SA, the paramilitary wing of the party, were sent in civilian dress to start fights, throw stink bombs and release mice into the auditorium. Ticket counters were smashed and antisemitic tirades were directed at the film’s Jewish producers.
Future showings of the film took place under heavy police protection with many houses refusing to show it. Remarque’s novel was classified as degenerate by the Nazis and when they came to power in 1933 copies of the novels were publicly burned.