Available on Netflix, this is a film I’ve been meaning to watch for a while now. I went into it expecting an experience based on the novel of the same name, but got something entirely different. That’s not a bad thing, but I wasn’t thrilled with the choices made by the directors and producers, either.
The film opens with complete silence, the camera facing upwards at snow-covered treetops. The serenity is soon shattered by the sounds and sights of war. You watch as soldiers die in a hopeless charge. I appreciate the affect here and it was well done, but none of the characters you see are the protagonists. It ends up feeling like wasted time. Again, I don’t think this was a bad choice per se, but the book opens with the main character, Paul, in his home village, and you get a glimpse of his idyllic life before he follows the drums of war.
There is a short scene after the opening scene of Paul and his friends as they happily enlist in the Army, but it doesn’t carry the theme quite as well as in the book.
Related to this, later in the book, Paul returns home on leave and finds that everything is the same, except him. He realizes that his war experience has changed him forever, and he eventually concludes that coming home had been a mistake. He is eager to return to the front because that is where he feels ‘normal’.
This is not shown in the movie at all, and that, I thought, was a big missed opportunity. The theme of the story is not just the horrors of war, but also how it changes the soldiers who return. It’s an important theme to explore because I don’t believe many civilians consider it.
We all understand the ‘ticking time bomb’ cliche, when the war veteran is constantly angry, drunk, and suicidal (this harmful stereotype is a whole other problem to be discussed another day, by the way), but in reality, so many more veterans internalize any grief or stress. They blend in because they know they have to. They’re home again, but they know they’re not really home. Home was before, when all was innocent, and they had all their childhood friends.
That’s gone forever. As the book shows, the hometown and the childhood friends are all the same, but the veteran is the one who changed, and he can’t be unchanged.
Failing to explore this theme left me feeling not so high on the movie as I might have been. I immediately contrasted it to the end of They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson, a film I consider required viewing. At the end of that film, you hear an old veteran of The Great War telling a story about returning home to his old town, returning to his old job, and reuniting with his old coworker. His coworker, who had remained at home, sees him come in after four years of being apart and says to the veteran, “Bob! Haven’t seen you in a while. You been working nights?”
And the movie ends there. I get chills just thinking about this powerful testimony. After four years of some of the most hellish warfare humanity has ever fought, the warfighter returns to an old friend asking if he picked up a different shift. The old friend is no longer a true friend because he can’t possibly relate to the warfighter. That old friendship is, in a word, gone, and the warfighter knows this. He knows that he will forever be an other.
Overall I enjoyed the film, and it did do a good job of faithfully representing the anti-war message of the book, but I thought there were too many missed opportunities. There’s another neglected section of the book that shows the boys struggling with a cruel, domineering corporal at the barracks before they ever even see war, but this review has gone on long enough.
I recommend this film (in the original German) to students of history, but I also feel compelled to warn you about some pretty severe violence. I’m sure you would expect that given the film’s subject, but be warned that it can get extremely graphic and includes gruesome hand-to-hand combat.