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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 16, 2023

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Some complaints about Netflix's new adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Im Westen nichts Neues is one of my most beloved books, and it had a profound effect on me reading it as a teen. Moreover, the First World War is a period of history that has always fascinated me. Consequently, I have Strong Opinions on Netflix's adaptation. In general, I try to avoid watching adaptations of my favourite books, and I haven't seen either the 1930 film or the 1979 TV series. Yet bored in a hotel room, I decided to watch this one (warning - spoilers ahead).

In short, while the movie was a visual feast and was highly evocative (and Daniel Brühl is a consistently fine actor), it also spectacularly missed the point of the novel. To wit...

(1) The title of the novel literally means "nothing new on the Western front", reflecting a central theme of the novel concerning the ubiquity and mediocrity of human suffering in this period - Paul's death isn't even a footnote in dispatches. By shifting the action of the story to the final day of the conflict, you lose the sense of mediocrity and genericity - the dispatches from November 11 1918 most certainly did NOT read "Im Westen nichts Neues". Consequently, the adaptation misses one of the central themes of the novel.

(2) Additionally, by making the denouement of the movie a senseless attack ordered by a deranged general, the hamartiology of the movie is fundamentally undermined. A big part of the novel is that if there was evil in the trenches, it was deeper, systemic, engrained in our species and society rather than locatable within a particular malevolent actor. But we all know exactly who to blame for the final, utterly pointless assault at the end of the movie - the cartoonishly nationalistic and stupid General Friedrichs.

(3) Arguably the most powerful part of the book - aside from the eternally haunting crater scene (which I'll grant the movie did well) - is when Paul returns home to the village of his birth, and finds himself utterly alienated from his former community. This is something we feel powerfully as a reader, too - after the torrent of horror and futility we've been reading, there is a tonal whiplash returning to a civilian setting that emphasises the naivety and lack of understanding of Paul's former mentors. The idea that warfare fundamentally damages and dislocates combatants from their pre-war communities is one that's now firmly in our cultural DNA thanks to the flood of post-Vietnam movies exploring alienation and PTSD, but Im Westen nichts Neues was one of the earliest works to explore it. Yet this whole scene is utterly absent from this adaptation, again because of the foolish decision to shift the focus to an incredibly compressed time window at the end of the war.

(4) As an amateur military historian, I found lots of things that made me grind my teeth (in contrast to Sam Mendes' relatively punctilious 1917). I won't list them all, you'll be glad to know, but just to highlight one, the movie depicts an array of threats and modern horrors, from planes to tanks to flamethrowers, in an unrealistically condensed and spectacular fashion. This would be understandable if we were being shown an edited "highlights reel" of several months of fighting, but we're expected to think this all happened in a single day! In fact, the majority of deaths in WW1 were due to artillery, not machine guns as the mythology would have it. Moreover, most of these deaths happened not in mass 'over the top' assaults but while soldiers huddled in dugouts. The First World War was largely a miserable boring conflict in which death could come at any time due to a shell landing in the trench next to you.

(5) The decision to explore the armistice negotiations was an interesting one, and Matthias Erzberger is a fascinating figure. But if this was what Director Edward Berger wanted to explore, he should have made a different film. As it was, these scenes were utterly underdeveloped, and we didn't get much insight into why Germany was forced to negotiate, or the various factions involved on the German side. The growing effects of the British blockade, the abdication of the Kaiser, the failure of the U-boat campaign, the horrific losses and disappointment from the 1918 German Spring Offensive, the Russian revolution, fears of the nascent threat of Communism, the collapse of the Danube front - all of these themes are important and interesting if one wants to tell a story about why the war ended. As it was, the Armistice scenes detracted from the film's ability to tell Paul's story at the frontline, while failing to deliver a particularly rich or historically-informed narrative about the politics.

I will resist the opportunity to go on a further rant about public misperceptions of World War 1, but I will say that while I love Blackadder Goes Forth with a passion, it has - in combination with the "lions led by donkeys" trope - helped cement many misunderstandings about the war, especially in the British mindset, and this film perpetuates many of these myths.

For example, the First World War's causes were not some terrible accident or obscure diplomatic nonsense involving an ostrich. It had been brewing for decades as the balance of power in Europe shifted, Germany and Russia sought to flex their muscles, the Ottoman Empire declined, and France sought to undo the losses of the Franco-Prussian War. It very nearly happened several years earlier during the various Morocco crises, for example. All of the players had very good (political) reasons to fight. The involvement of the UK in particular was triggered by the German invasion of Belgium, a neutral country whose defense we were explicitly committed to. The death-toll and misery and human suffering of the war was obviously colossal, and from a moral perspective of course the war was a species-level mistake. But it was a disaster arising from deep systemic factors, and without radically revising the world order as it was in 1914, it's not clear how it could or should have been avoided.

Relatedly, there were no 'easy fixes' for the stalemate of trench warfare. As everyone knows, the balance of military technology at the time made sustained offensives very costly and unlikely to result in breakouts. However, defense was also very costly; in the majority of German offensives, for example, the Allies suffered more casualties as defenders than the Germans did as attackers. Ultimately, when you have large industrialised countries with huge populations that are engaged in what they see as a war for national survival, they will send millions of soldiers to fight and die; these nations can "take a punch", as Dan Carlin memorably put it, and there's no "One Weird Trick To Fix The Trench Warfare Stalemate". When various powers did try alternative approaches - for example, the Gallipoli landings or the Ostend Raids - it generally backfired. While the likes of John French and Douglas Haig were mediocre commanders, even the best and most innovative officers of the war (such as John Monash) sustained eye-watering casualties.

Despite all the above complaints, I do think the film is worth watching; it is a visual feast, as I say, and some scenes are spectacularly well done: the famous crater scene, as well as the 'uniform scenes' added at the start that KulakRevolt discussed here. However, as an adaptation of the book or as a rumination on the nature of evil in warfare, it is distinctly lacking.

The involvement of the UK in particular was triggered by the German invasion of Belgium, a neutral country whose defense we were explicitly committed to.

That is the official reason, because the UK government knew it would be hard to convince the British public that Serbia was worth fighting over, but they were keen to get involved from the very start.

Indeed, Britain's involvement is what really set it off as a "World War", whereas if they had stayed out it would've probably been a larger repeat of something like the Franco Prussian war. I've felt for a while that their decision to join the war was ultimately the most disastrous foreign policy decision the UK ever made.

I don't know that much about WWI but I got the sense that it was a very theatrical and "hollywood-ized" depiction of the war. I watched the 1930 years ago in college and I especially remembered the scene where their kindly postman becomes a tyrannical bully once he's in uniform. I was disappointed not to see that in this movie.

I'm in 100%, total agreement with you, as a big fan of the book and someone very interested in the world wars. I've mentioned before here that the depiction of the Germans as over-eager in the final days of the war isn't just a baffling reversal of the book's finish, but also likely to give the average viewer the completely wrong impression about what the German morale and position was like come November 1918.

Over time I've become less and less tolerant for movies that take historical liberties. I don't really care about names or places or specific dates, or getting all the period details of dress and costume and dialogue correct. But the average person should be able to get, emotionally and intellectually, a roughly accurate impression of the era depicted. The average person knows fuck all about history EXCEPT for what they get from pop culture, and so in that respect I do feel that film/tv/video game creatives have some responsibility to get the broad stuff right. In an age of decreased literacy they do shoulder more of the burden (extremely sadly) for explaining history. And I think it's much more important that the larger public have a decent sense of our shared history than most people would reckon.

I will resist the opportunity to go on a further rant about public misperceptions of World War 1, but I will say that while I love Blackadder Goes Forth with a passion, it has - in combination with the "lions led by donkeys" trope - helped cement many misunderstandings about the war, especially in the British mindset, and this film perpetuates many of these myths.

YES. I remember watching a few of the episodes in high school history class and it was one of the first time that I realised how, with just a little bit of obsessiveness about history in my spare time, I already knew more than a lot of well-educated adults.

However, to paraphrase what has been said about Neville Chamberlain, World War I British have about as much chance of being remembered as competent decision-makers in a new and difficult environment as Pontius Pilate has of being remembered as a competent Roman official.