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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Disquiet on the German Front

Aggiornamento: 13 apr 2023

Another classic novel is made into a movie. Will we hear the usual exasperation at what is left out on the screen? Will we yawn and turn the page as we usually do when some ancient-of-days laments how his author-hero from the good-old-reading-days (before his eyes failed) has been betrayed? This time around may be different. The German literary establishment has sent an artillery barrage against their countryman Edward Berger’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. One critic doubts that Berger and his fellow script writers have managed in the din of special effects and greasepaint warfare to read the novel of Erich Maria Remarque. It’s an undisputed landmark of excellence in 20th-Century German writing. No one has done better than Remarque to picture the generation of German youth that floundered through the European war of 1914-1918.

The Netflix war-film stuffed with actors playing corpses won the best film of 2022 at London’s BAFTA awards in February. Berger was named best director. It provoked German bookworms to double fire from their big guns. Their countryman had hoodwinked the clueless foreigners in his fevered Oscar-Geilheit, or lust for an Oscar.

To play the honest broker, we will have to ponder the movie as well as actually read Im Westen nichts Neues. There is a new translation of the 1929 best-seller by Brian Murdoch published in 1994. The first thing we learn is that the German title has a different shade of meaning from the preferred English one. All Quiet on the Western Front could be taken as broadly ironical. There’s “a different kind of irony” in the German, Nothing New on the Western Front, nothing new to report.

Remarque was born in 1898. He promised in his book to tell how his generation was destroyed in the First World War by shattering its minds if not by death. He would accuse nobody and not mix in his own personal story. He held firm to his intention. Only for a moment as schoolboys are the recruits stirred by nationalist rhetoric. Once immersed in the brutality of trench warfare their main concern becomes survival. One means is to gather in comradely cliques for mutual support. As conditions worsen with death all around them, these tiny groupings replace a larger society. Experience at the front or in the trenches separates young soldiers forever from home and civilian life. They became a race apart. Boys who went to war in their teens had not even begun adult life. Remarque shows them to be unrooted, disconnected, alone.

Paul, Remarque’s narrator, is melancholic precisely because like his comrades he has reduced himself to the single objective of staying alive. Every other thought and action is set aside. This is wonderfully portrayed in a scene that finds Paul marooned in a bomb crater, the battle raging above him. A French soldier falls on top of him. They struggle and Paul wins by viciously stabbing the Frenchman. Paul thought he killed the man who, however, isn’t quite dead. He gurgles as the blood from the wounds fills his lungs. The sound doesn’t stop, plays on Paul’s nerves, and drives him to a far corner of the crater in which they are trapped. Finally he takes his knife and returns to look closely at the dying man. Will he finish him off?

For a moment, Paul’s single-track, animal instinct to come out alive leaves him. Other thoughts rush in. The gurgling body is a person. Paul fumbles to loosen the Frenchman’s clothes, examines his wounds, wets his lips, wipes his face. The Frenchman glares at the knife and in his last instant of life thinks his throat will be cut. Paul didn’t want him to die. He examine the man’s papers, a photo of his wife. a child. Frantic, he promises himself to write her, send money, explain….

The scene could be melodramatic, even sentimental, and that is how Berger will present it in his movie. But in the novel it ends differently. Paul manages to get back to his home trench and the next day tells a friend about what happened in the crater, including the promise he made to himself. His comrade upbraids him for thinking of the enemy’s feelings. It’s dangerous—he’ll crack if he does that. Paul must forget them and think only of winning the struggle for his own life. After a minute’s musing, Paul agrees and buries the events of the crater deep within him. Remarque called it mind shattering. It’s only one instance of a dozen subtleties that Berger’s movie will plow through like one of his studio-made tanks, not even noticing.

The traditional war-film like the Netflix extravaganza won’t do any longer. Berger’s movie is nothing but Universal Studio’s and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet of 1930 with improved special effects and noisemakers. Steven Spielberg said Milestone could put the audience into the middle of a battlefield and had inspired him for Saving Private Ryan, his own exercise in waging popcorn war. Berger’s piled-up actors holding their breaths to play dead hardly impresses us when we can watch on our TV some of the forty-thousand genuinely dead bodies being uncovered in the Turkish-Syrian earthquake.

Novels work otherwise. Remarque makes his most telling points about war’s horror in quiet scenes when soldiers reveal their thoughts, often despite themselves, in words. We learn what they feel about being in the middle of a battlefield by listening to them, not by feeling we ourselves are there fighting beside them.

In an even more highhanded way, Berger builds a whole ramshackle structure on top of the novel. Remarque tells the story of boys made murderers and themselves the victims of other murderers in a black cloud that allows them knowledge of nothing but their fear of death. It’s not about Franco-German but human relations. Berger adds a cliché-heavy tale of an evil general (dyspeptic with an arrogant moustache) and a good politician (he shines his own shoes!). It’s a point of view Joan Littlewood gave us fifty years ago in Oh What a Lovely War. But the visionary Joan did it as comedy with music, style and a light touch. Berger makes an oafish, butting-in, amateur historian.

The question remains whether the failure of the Berger-Netflix project to render the substance of Remarque’s book teaches us anything about adapting novels to the screen. Can we say more than that adapters should keep hands off novels of any depth unless they can offer a radical reimagining, so-called transcreation? If the intent is merely to satisfy a taste for high-speed action and deafening explosions, let them do so with fresh scripts limited to that aim. This will be even more necessary as virtual reality become more available. The problem of transposing a novel will not go away. The only sure access to a character’s consciousness are the words of his author. Acting and visual suggestions can at best take us part way. Wars between readers and viewers like that now raging in Germany will only reach an armistice with the arrival of new troops, adapters of genius.

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