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The mud and blood are back

The preparation of the remake of “Nothing New in the West” took place in 2020, when military experts persuaded us that wars with tanks and howitzers were a relic of the past; the wars of the future would be fought with precision missiles and drones.

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The mud and blood are back

The preparation of the remake of “Nothing New in the West” took place in 2020, when military experts persuaded us that wars with tanks and howitzers were a relic of the past; the wars of the future would be fought with precision missiles and drones. The shooting of “Nothing New in the West” took place in spring 2021 when such an old-fashioned war was being fought in Ethiopia, but that was far away and not state of the art.

The theatrical release of "Nothing New in the West" now hits us in the middle of the Ukraine war in the middle of Europe, and it's being fought with tanks and howitzers. Never before has a film caught up with its subject so radically and so quickly. But not overtaken.

Edward Berger's version of The West is the antidote to all the Hollywood war movies of the past few decades, in which heroism became more and more prevalent, there was less and less mud and blood and hunger; Hollywood psychologically paved the way for "clean" wars before military technology was available.

The other, more realistic narrative of war had begun in 1929 with Erich Maria Remarque's novel "Nothing New in the West", and the first film adaptation by Lewis Milestone the following year (yes, Hollywood's too!) remained true to this view: a ruthless portrayal of senseless dying, which is why the nationalists in Germany also ran a storm against the film.

Edward Berger returns to this tradition. We may be more callous about film violence today, but this is still strong stuff. Berger begins with an apocalyptic post-battle landscape, with crater lakes sculpted by shells and corpses scattered around.

Then a brilliant sequence begins: the survivors strip the dead of their red-soaked uniforms, they are carted behind the front in bundles, women at troughs wash out the blood, women at sewing machines remove the bullet holes - and the repaired cloth is given to the high school graduates, who reported enthusiastically to the front. Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is one of them, and he finds a strange name sewn into his recycling uniform. "It belongs to someone else," he says, wanting to return it. "It was too narrow for him," the officer lies and simply rips off the label.

There is also a lot of shooting and explosions at Berger's, and tank tracks crush people and flamethrowers roast people, and the comrades around Paul die like flies. That's still shocking, despite our accustomedness to cinematic fireworks.

Most disturbing, however, are some of the quiet scenes. When Paul walks through the trenches after the fight and collects the dog tags of the dead, when he asks the Poilu for forgiveness, whom he mortally wounded, or those dirt and blood-smeared faces that express an actually indescribable horror. Like Remarque, it's about humanity in the inhuman.

Berger takes liberties with Remarque. Paul Bäumer was not drafted into his service until 1917, in the third year of the war, not the first. Basic training is skipped, he doesn't get wounded, he doesn't get a vacation home where his tales of suffering and death aren't wanted to be heard.

Instead, his film jumps relatively quickly to November 1918, and one wonders what is to come, because the armistice was already signed on November 11th. You quickly understand the reason: suddenly generals (including Devid Striesow) and politicians (including Daniel Brühl) appear who are fighting for an end to the war.

This level does not exist in either Remarque or Milestone, and at first it seems like a foreign body. Gradually it becomes clear that it is intended to provide the historical context which, 100 years later, may be unknown to many. The French general rejects any change to the strict terms of the armistice, the German general sends his soldiers into the final battle with a speech in which he blames the “betrayal” of the Social Democrats for the defeat – and studiously conceals the fact that his commander-in-chief has declared the end of the fighting demanded under all circumstances. Both the vengeful French attitude and the German legend of the stab in the back made Hitler possible.

This is a film about losers, made by those who once lost (although now the money has come from Netflix, where the film will be available from late October). It is the first "Im Westen" film adaptation in German, with German actors. It blames no one for the war, it does not compare atrocities against each other. Maybe it also teaches skepticism when we are suddenly supposed to buy weapons for 100 billion.

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