History is written by the victors. As cliche as it may seem, isn’t it convenient that the “good guys” always come out on top in the story of history? I digress. The ashes of one man’s home are the stomping ground for another, and even to this day, we rarely consider the stories of the man whose house burned down. In this film, the house is burning. It is not pretty. It is not fun. This film is closer to “The Passion of The Christ” and “Come and See” than, say, your typical Michael Bay fare. It’s about as close as you are going to want to get to the trenches, by far. Don’t forget to pack something for the road, because it’s a long journey.
Schoolmates Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer), Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus), and Ludwig Behm (Adrian Grünewald) are on their way to the adventure of their lives —. Aat least, that’s what all their other classmates and authority figures would lead them to believe —. F fighting on the front lines in France, just like the classic heroes in their storybooks. That is until they’re greeted in the trenches by Kat (Albrecht Schuh) and a French artillery barrage that kills Ludwig on their first day. From then on, we follow Paul’s misadventures in stealing Geese, keeping watch at night, and sticking it out in craters with dead Frenchmen. All the while, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) and his constituency meet with the allied forces to negotiate an armistice. In the minds of some: a race against time. To the men on the lines, however, the goal remains clear: get home.
This film is about as ugly and gut-wrenching as Netflix will probably let this production go, and I think this film is all the better for it. The First World War has had something of a resurgence in the past five or six years, seeing as we just passed the century mark of the war’s conclusion. One could argue that most of modern history has been defined by the Second World War, but that conflict was never going to happen without the framework of the end of the first. Though the perspective of the negotiation of the terms of surrender was not in the original novel, I do welcome the change of pace in the ways it draws parallels between the stuffy train cars and the disgusting trenches of the people fighting the war on their behalf. In those trenches, I would almost posit that this film is closer to a horror movie than an out-and-out war picture. Whether you’re seeing the aftermath of a gas attack, the advance of a French tank brigade, or just seeing Paul as his comrades burn to a crisp not too far from the craters he’s hiding in, this movie leaves all of us with a feeling of almost utter helplessness. On top of that, those moments of terror intersperse the real experience of war: boredom. Sure, the French across the way might be planning a counter-offensive to take your trench, but the people in the other trench are thinking the same of you. What is to be done? Hunker down, and hope that the rats or artillery don’t get you.
More horror than action, more art than one may suspect, but all in all a very afflicting picture. This is the kind of movie that wants to make you want to take a bath and brush your teeth just to get the bad taste out of your mouth. At two and a half hours, it’s like watching a train crash over, and over, and over. If you’re looking to find a film that makes you feel gross and fatigued, this might just be the picture for you.