When the first shells fall and the first shots are fired in Edward Berger's war drama "Nothing New in the West", it is almost impossible not to think about the current world situation.
When the German director began filming his Netflix-produced epic in the Czech Republic in early 2021, which will be released in cinemas on September 29, the Covid lockdown was in place - but the crisis in Ukraine was still far away.
Berger told the dpa: "The topic of war is of course very topical at the moment. But the film was made mainly because two and a half years ago we had the feeling that a dangerous mood of nationalism was emerging: the European Union is falling apart, right-wing extremist parties are emerging, Orban in Hungary, Trump in America, Brexit - suddenly the institutions that have given us 70 years of peace are being challenged through demagogy and propaganda. We found it relevant to show where such charged nationalist sentiment and language can quickly lead."
Berger's epic illustrates with brutal sobriety the rapid and merciless transformation with which war swept over people and regions. While young soldiers are marching towards the western front, singing euphorically, a few minutes later some of them are lying in the trenches, pierced by bullets.
The film also shows that more than 90 years after Erich Maria Remarque's novel shocked ailing post-war Germany, "Nothing New in the West" has lost little of its explosiveness. Remarque's denunciation of the brutality with which young men were sent into World War I as cannon fodder led to a ban under Hitler.
Berger brings the material back to Germany
The first film adaptation of Lewis Milestones in 1930 was highly acclaimed outside of Germany and won the Oscar for best picture and best director. Berger's adaptation - together with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell - now brings the material back to its country of origin for the first time. Now "Nothing New in the West" is Germany's nominee in the race for the Oscar in the category Best Foreign Language Film 2023.
"Unlike with American or British works, there can't be a feeling of glorification in a German war film," said Berger. "We're not allowed to tell heroic stories here, it's always about grief, shame, guilt and terror. And of course there is nothing to be proud of in these wars. It was important to us to show this unique German perspective of destruction and what scars that has left in people and in the world."
And the director doesn't hold back. The film adaptation of the classic depicts the horrors of the First World War from the point of view of a young soldier with ruthlessness.
Names and feelings don't matter in war
"It was too small for him," the officer lies. Names, it quickly becomes clear, play no role in war, just as little as age, faces, feelings - and in general, human lives. Paul himself had pretended to be older to join his friends for military service. But Paul, Albert (Aaron Hilmer) and Frantz (Moritz Klaus) quickly catch up with the cruel reality on the western front. The naïve euphoria is followed by brutal fights and pure desperation when Frantz admits in tears: "I didn't imagine it like that".
"The film is a journey of young people, like the main character Paul Bäumer, into the loss of innocence, into the death of their feelings," says Berger. "And if they don't die, their innocence still dies. The film shows how, in the face of this violence, you slowly but surely become a complete killing machine."
The young actors, most fresh out of drama school, deliver an impressive, heartbreaking performance of this "Lost Generation", the youth of the First World War. While gruesome combat is shocking, it's the blunt, wide-eyed close-ups that move.
Berger stages the world of war so artfully that it almost looks beautiful in its monochrome, with a palette ranging from brown mud to rusty red blood to black smoke. The sky is overcast, the icy cold palpable, the desolation palpable. The visually stunning battle scenes are in no way inferior to those in Sam Mendes' "1917".
The world of the Prussian generals as a contrast
As a contrast to the terror in the trenches, Berger gives an insight into the parallel world of the Prussian generals: Instead of hunger and fear, there is full dinner and unrealistic arrogance.
While the liberal politician Erzberger (aptly cast by Daniel Brühl) tries to persuade his superiors to sign a ceasefire and surrender, glorious, obstinate decision-makers like General Friedrich (Devid Striesow) continue to send Germany's offspring into battle without mercy. The older men fight, the younger ones die.
Veteran soldiers like Stanislaus Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch), who takes Paul under his wing, fear the world after the war the most. Schuch plays one of the few warm-hearted bosses with moving intensity.
Fears and brutality are magnificently underlined by Volker Bertelmann's film music. Staccato-like drumbeats, shrill industrial synthesizer tones and deceptively harmonious melodies underline the horror of what is happening and vibrate for a long time. Like many war films, "Nothing New in the West" is difficult to watch and even harder to shake off, each of the 147 minutes is profound.
The film opens in cinemas on September 29th, and the Netflix production can be seen on the streaming service from October 28th.