With so many film industry awards taking place before the Academy Awards ceremony, the Oscar winners feel relatively predictable by the time the actual broadcast begins. So the biggest surprises are usually reserved for the nominations. One of the bigger surprises this year was the overall strength of Netflix No news from the Western Front, which garnered nine Academy nominations, including Best Picture. It has won a variety of industry and technical awards and featured prominently on best-of-2022 awards from film critics. At the BAFTAs (essentially the British Oscars), it garnered no less than 14 nominations and won in seven categories, including Best Picture and Best Director. It is now considered one of the few opportunities to upset the alleged frontrunner Everything Everywhere Everything at once for Best Picture in the United States. This is especially surprising, as it is arguably the worst film of the 10 nominees.
That might seem like a harsh judgment, especially for a movie with such impeccable technical credentials, coming from a story with such lasting impact spanning multiple generations. The German-language film, a new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1929 anti-war novel, cuts between tough negotiations to end World War I and the gruesome fate of a group of young German soldiers. It is a timeless message about the horrors of war. (So timeless, in fact, that it has already inspired one Best Picture-winning adaptation of 1930.) But director Edward Berger uses a surprising amount of gore to get this message across, to the point where the bona fide anti-war folks feel strangely regressive.
Filmmaker François Truffaut is consistently quoted (and paraphrased even more often) on anti-war films. This is what he told Gene Siskel in the Chicago grandstand 50 years ago, in 1973: “I think violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some movies claim to be anti-war movies, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an anti-war movie. Any film about war becomes pro-war.” The 2022 No news from the Western Front is the latest film to respond to this provocative and thoughtful idea with: “But what if we made it Real violent?”
That in itself is not necessarily a problem. Berger can’t be blamed for disagreeing with Truffaut that his visually grotesque, disturbing film inherently glorifies battles. His view No news from the Western Front does feel like part of a conversation about how best to depict death in combat without glorifying it. Most of what the new version adds to that conversation, though, is the extremity and ubiquity of the violence.
It never feels like Berger is to attempt to glorify war. The German soldiers are portrayed as cheated with nationalist speeches, completely undertrained and living in a state of non-stop terror. The movie even eliminates some procrastination by omitting the more extended days off some soldiers get in the book. The audience hardly sees an act of heroism during the 140 minutes of the film. The best the soldiers can hope for is a too brief, too belated flash of humanity in the midst of the carnage. More often they stick to simple dumb luck that eventually runs out. But as many war films follow in the footsteps of Saving Private Ryan, the film imitates the visceral carnage of that movie’s gripping opening passages without meaningfully deepening its impact. Instead, Berger tries to exert more force by expanding the scope of the blood.
Arguably Spielberg’s film isn’t definitively anti-war either. But the ambiguous quality makes up for it Saving Private Ryan especially fascinating 25 years later. The way it juxtaposes acts of total horror with empathetic characterizations – and yes, sentimental patriotism – denies audiences an easy set of answers. It is characteristic of Spielberg of the later period becoming the best picture nominee The Fables, featuring a scene in which young Spielberg invader Sammy enthusiastically takes on the technical challenge of making a war film. The eagerness that Sammy and his cast and crew bring to the project feels like a tacit admission that there is a perverse artistic satisfaction in depicting grueling violence.
On paper, 2022 All quiet seems less inconsistent with the meaning of war. For better or worse, it doesn’t have a Tom Hanks figure urging the young soldiers to “earn” the sacrifices being made all around them. The soldiers are adrift, fighting (mostly unsuccessfully) for their lives in the trenches of World War I, and a final crawl more or less informs the audience that their deaths were in vain. They are not heroes, they are victims of authority figures far away engaged in high-stakes negotiations. The action on the battlefield All quiet feels like the opening of Private Ryan, rather than the mission-driven violence that comes later: bodies are crushed and burst through tank steps. A man graphically slits his own throat in desperation. A mud-caked soldier nearly stabs an enemy to death, then tries to help him as he bleeds excruciatingly.
But by emphasizing the united state of these young soldiers, Berger flattens them out as characters. Then he kills them one by one. Broadly speaking, that’s not all that different from what happens in the 1930 film. What’s missing is the character-driven grimness that takes the earlier version out of its relative restraint; it is explicit in the characters’ disillusionment with their leaders and their country. On Letterboxd, writer and horror aficionado Louis Peitzman goes so far as to do just that similar to the 2022 All quiet to a slasher picture, and it’s an astute comparison. No one is safe from death in this film, and as the action progresses, some of the deaths are accompanied by increasingly cruel and elaborate ironies beyond standard battlefield casualties.
To take the comparison further, the existence of the 1930 No news from the Western Front makes the 2022 version feel a bit like one of those horror remakes that proliferated around the late 2000s. It doesn’t have much nuance, perspective or originality. Instead, the story is superficially updated by adding more contemporary special effects. It’s a “war is hell” reboot, with a gritty war movie palette as standardized as the music video grain in Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes slasher remakes, highlighting the rich mud tones and pale uniform blues. Like those remakes, it lacks the soul and enthusiasm of a good exploitation movie. The visceral texture feels just as stage decoration as the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This makes the 2022 All quiet both an outlier and an innovation at the Oscars. While foreign-language films have been nominated for Best Picture more frequently since that category’s expansion in 2009, they still carry the best when competing against their English-language counterparts. All quiet‘s heavy violence makes it a particularly daring choice. Plenty of award show movies have blood spatter, but in terms of sheer guts, All quiet boasts probably the largest volume this side of a Guillermo del Toro nominee – or Mel Gibson’s similarly carnage-obsessed 2016 war movie Hacksaw Ridge. That should act as a strong counterpoint to the slick, stubbornly contextless war games of Top gun: Maverickwho timidly avoids mentioning a real enemy so as not to alienate the global audience looking for a good time.
In practice, however No news from the Western Front feels more like a hollow gesture to what an anti-war epic might look like in 2023. Last fall, as award season contenders rolled out in theaters and on streamers, Netflix appeared to be leaving more money behind White noiseGuillermo del Toros Pinocchioand that of Rian Johnson Glass onionwhat that suggests All quiet‘s success is largely based on organic appreciation for the film among Oscar voters. But it’s a strange movie to elicit that kind of appreciation. It’s a feel-bad story that almost congratulates audiences for grasping the utterly simple “war is tragedy” message – and for weathering a soup of movie violence rebranded as serious business.