Nazi-banned anti-war novel revived through German eyes

Banned by the Nazis for its anti-war message, classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front gets a Netflix revival with lessons for a troubled new age.

The nearly 100-year-old book, already the subject of an Oscar-winning film and an acclaimed TV movie, is being brought to the screen for the first time by a German director.

“My film differs from American or British (war) films made from the victors’ point of view,” filmmaker Edward Berger, 52, told AFP.

“In Germany there is always this feeling of shame, sadness and guilt (around the war). It was important to me to present this perspective.”

The novel by Erich Maria Remarque, published in 1929, describes the experiences of a young German soldier in the First World War.

It is one of the most influential examples of anti-militarist literature ever written, translated into over 60 languages ??and selling more than 50 million copies worldwide.

Just a year after its release, a US film adaptation by Lewis Milestone was released, which won the Oscars for best picture and best director.

However, due to its subversive message, the work was banned in Germany and targeted by the Nazis in the book burning of 1933, who accused it of the “treason of soldiers”.

– ‘Propaganda and Manipulation’ –

Director Berger is best known for his 2018 Emmy-nominated miniseries Patrick Melrose, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

He said the film, selected as Germany’s entry for the 2023 international feature film Oscar, aims to show “the perspective of the vanquished”.

These include aspects not covered in the book: the signing of the armistice after World War I and the harsh conditions imposed on the Germans, which later fueled Nazi propaganda to justify nationalism and the outbreak of World War II.

In the novel, the entire conflict is viewed through the eyes of Paul Baeumer (played in the film by Austrian stage actor Felix Kammerer), a volunteer soldier on the Western Front.

Once in the trenches, he quickly becomes aware of the absurdity of war and the patriotic brainwashing that got him there.

Berger said he was pushed to take on the project by his 16-year-old daughter, who had just been studying the book, as had several generations of high school students before her.

When he started filming almost three years ago, he also wanted to combat growing nationalism in the West.

“There was Brexit, Trump, Orban – there were many voters who chose the extreme right,” he said.

“Institutions like the EU, which has guaranteed us peace for 70 years, have been challenged by demagogues through propaganda and manipulation.”

With a film that shows where such developments can lead, Berger also raises the alarm.

– ‘Emotional Blow’ –

Though the director declined to discuss the war raging in Ukraine, reviewers noted the obvious parallels to a story about a soldier fighting a nationalist lie.

Martin Schwickert of the RND media group called the film “terrifyingly timely given the Ukraine war” and said it “makes it clear what war means to those who must fight it”.

In the book and film, Baeumer dies along with all his comrades a few days before the end of the conflict. Shortly before, he kills a French soldier.

In one of several graphic fight scenes that drew comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Bäumer recognizes his enemy’s shared humanity.

While rummaging in the uniform pocket of the fallen Frenchman, Baeumer discovers a photo of his wife and little daughter and blames himself for having made him a widow and orphan.

After its theatrical release in German cinemas on Thursday, the film will be available worldwide on Netflix in October.

Its premiere was met with mixed reviews, with the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung withering in its criticism: “In Germany, even after 100 years, you don’t see a difference between a good war film and a bad one”.

The best-selling picture, however, praised the two-and-a-half-hour film as “brilliantly shot, wonderfully acted and with strong emotional impact”.

“As devastating as the story is, it is beautifully brought to screen. A film that everyone should see, especially in these times.”