Swedish director Edward Berger accepts the Oscar for Best International Feature Film for “All Quiet on the Western Front” – Copyright AFP Patrick T. Fallon
Céline LE PRIOUX
A wrenching German adaptation of the classic war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” clinched the Academy Award for best international feature Sunday with its timely anti-militarist message.
Nearly a century after the book by Erich Maria Remarque was published, the Netflix production capped a triumphant march through awards season with the Oscar win.
It was the first German-language film in Academy history to be up for best picture, among a surprise nine nominations.
The last German winner of best international feature (a category then known as best foreign language film) was “The Lives of Others” in 2007.
Swiss director Edward Berger, 52, thanked his star Felix Kammerer, an Austrian stage actor making his cinematic debut, saying: “Without you, none of us would be here.”
In “All Quiet”, World War I is viewed through the eyes of teenage German soldier Paul Baeumer (Kammerer), a volunteer on the Western front.
Once in the trenches, he quickly becomes aware of the absurdity of war and the patriotic brain-washing that got him there.
In one of several graphic battle scenes which drew comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, Baeumer recognises his enemy’s shared humanity.
A year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Culture Minister Claudia Roth hailed Berger’s epic when it scooped seven of Britain’s BAFTA prizes last month as “unfortunately the right film at the right time”.
“It tackles the horrors of a war in the heart of Europe in a harrowing way… with unflinching images no one will easily forget,” she said.
– ‘Shame, mourning and guilt’ –
Berger told AFP in Berlin last September as the picture premiered that the story was ripe for a fresh take.
“My film stands out from American or British (war) films made from the point of view of the victors,” he said.
“In Germany, there is always this feeling of shame, mourning and guilt (surrounding war). It was important for me to present this perspective.”
Published in 1929, the novel is one of the most influential examples of pacifist literature ever written, translated into more than 60 languages.
Just one year after the book came out, a US film adaptation by Lewis Milestone was released which would win the Academy Awards for best picture and best director.
But its subversive message saw the work banned in Germany and targeted in the 1933 book burnings by the Nazis, who accused it of “betraying soldiers”.
Berger was previously best known for his 2018 Emmy-nominated miniseries “Patrick Melrose” starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
He said he was pushed to accept “All Quiet” by his teenage daughter, who had just studied this book like several generations of high school students before her.
His adaptation of Remarque’s work aimed to show “the perspective of the vanquished”, he said.
This includes aspects not covered in the book: the signing of the armistice after World War I and the harsh conditions imposed on the Germans that later fed Nazi propaganda to justify nationalism and the outbreak of World War II.
– ‘Strong emotional punch’ –
German critics noted parallels with the current Russian onslaught in a story about a soldier fighting for a nationalist lie.
Martin Schwickert of the RND media group called the film “frighteningly current in light of the Ukraine war”, saying it “made plain what war means for those who have to fight it”.
The film proved popular in its home market, but reviews were mixed — and some were downright savage.
“In Germany, even after 100 years, one can’t see the difference between a good and a bad war film”, the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said.
The top-selling Bild however hailed the film as “brilliantly shot, wonderfully acted and packing a strong emotional punch”.
“A film everyone should see, especially in these times.”