Oscars spotlight: Netflix’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ deserves to be in the conversation

The 1929 publication of “All Quiet on the Western Front” was so controversial that the anti-war novel by German writer Erich Maria Remarque was banned in Germany and he was stripped of his German citizenship — by the Nazi party. One hundred years later, the book has received its third film adaptation, in German, by director Edward Berger, and Germany could not be more proud. It has entered Netflix’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” as its official submission for the 2023 Oscars.

The story, about a 17-year-old German boy’s fervor to fight for his country against the French in World War I, has a golden history with the academy. The first film adaptation of the book won Best Picture at the 1930 Oscars; its director, Lewis Milestone, took the Best Director prize. Rotten Tomatoes has certified the 2022 remake as 91% for “retaining the power of its classic source material by focusing on the futility of war.”

That futility is driven home in a series of brutally graphic scenes where German soldiers are routed by the French with bullets, tanks and flamethrowers while peacemakers such as Reich government representative Matthias Erzberger (played by Daniel Brühl of the TV series “The Alienist”) broker a cease fire with the Allied Powers. Berger boldly illustrates the stark contrast between the luxury enjoyed by the German military authorities in an elegantly appointed navy blue train car and the muddy, unforgiving trenches and snow-encrusted battlefields that claim the lives of so many young men (the film’s end credits cite the death toll as 17 million). Gradually, the soldiers receive word that a cease-fire is at hand and they prepare to go home. At the last minute, however, there is a change of plan that has dire consequences for some members of their company.

The film’s protagonist is Paul Bäumer, whose enthusiasm for warfare vanishes as his friends become casualties. In his first film role, 25-year-old Austrian actor Felix Kammerer is the haunted face of the movie. He effortlessly nails one wrenching scene after another, often without dialogue. In what some might call his Oscar scene — spoiler alert — Paul stabs a French soldier in the trenches, is horrified by his own behavior and then tries to dress his wounds as the man lays there dying. Why Kammerer is not a leading contender for a Best Actor is truly a mystery as his work here surpasses that of some of the names being bandied about by “pundits” from the trades. After all, the academy does have precedent rewarding actors from foreign-language films (French actors Jean Dujardin from “The Artist” and Marion Cotillard from “La Vie en Rose” are the most recent examples) and even actors of Austrian birth (Maximilian Schell in “Judgment at Nuremberg”).

As the awards season evolves and certain films fade from consideration or don’t pass muster despite relentless hyperbole, it’s perfectly plausible that academy members will put their muscle behind “All Quiet on the Western Front.” A double nomination as Best Picture and Best International Feature Film is not out of the question. It’s flawlessly filmed, from Berger’s direction, to the cinematography by James Friend, the production design by Christian M. Goldbeck and, most of all, the acting.

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