‘All Quiet on the Western Front': How Remarque’s iconic banned war novel became a Netflix blockbuster

‘All Quiet on the Western Front': How Remarque’s iconic banned war novel became a Netflix blockbuster
German-American film pioneer and president of Universal Pictures Carl Laemmle (L) with Erich Maria Remarque. (Getty Images & Netflix)

The first scene of Edward Berger's adaptation of Remarque's seminal work 'All Quiet on the Western Front' declares its preference for grand spectacle as loudly as is humanly possible. The New York Times' Ben Kenigsberg observes the opening shot to be an image reminiscent of shots from films made by American auteur Terrence Malick. The epic anti-war film directed by Berger is based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, which has already been turned into two films, one of which won Lewis Milestone an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director in 1930.

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Remarque’s novel was initially released in magazine form in late January 1929 after appearing in the German newspaper ‘Vossische Zeitung’ in November and December of 1928. The novel and its follow-up, 'The Road Back' (1930), were two of the German novelist’s works that Nazi Germany banned and subsequently set on fire. Nevertheless, in its first 18 months of publication, 'All Quiet on the Western Front' sold 2.5 million copies in 22 different languages.

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The film is centered on a group of German schoolboys who are persuaded by their almost jingoistic teacher to enlist in the armed forces at the start of World War I. The narrative depicts the sorrow of war through the experiences of these young German recruits. Berger, when talking about his film to Newsweek said, "Whenever I saw American or British war films, I'm really enjoying them but they were specifically from a perspective that I couldn't quite relate to and was different from mine. I realized it's because Brits or Americans have a very different approach to the story, just based on their history.

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"There's nothing respectable about it, only shame, remorse, horror, and a sense of obligation to that heritage," he added. "I could never tell a heroic story, but I felt that with this film and with this story—a German novel—to tell it from that perspective, to infuse every artistic choice with that history, with that sense of guilt or shame, just makes for a very different film."

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To Berger, now  was "the appropriate moment" to tell this narrative so that people throughout the world might remember how it was 100 years ago, in contrast to Remarque, whose motivation was instilled due to his own experience fighting in the first World War.

All Quiet on the Western Front released globally on Netflix on October 28.

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