“This book does not represent a denunciation or a confession. It only intends to show a generation that was destroyed by war, even if it escaped the grenades”.
On the first page of his novel, No news at the frontwritten in 1929 and set in the First World War, Erich Maria Remarque (pseudonym of Erich Paul Remark) makes a warning and a statement of intent.
One would have to wonder what Edward Berger has intended, director of the new film adaptation of Remarque’s novelthe first German national. The movie was awarded four Oscars in the last edition of the awards: for the best non-English language film, best production design, best cinematography and best soundtrack.
Berger is not, as Remarque was, a survivor of the Great War who turns to literature as a cathartic means of overcoming trauma. However, the anti-war reinterpretation that he makes of the novel is also functional: it seems intended to express a reflection or perhaps the confluence of various thoughts on German memory, their collective identity in the course of the 20th century and their present.
Naturally, this revisionism is not neutral. Regarding the novel, there is a change of perspective and a departure from literalness. For this reason, the relevance or otherwise of Berger’s tape has given rise to some critics in Germany. One of them (the most practical) points to a political debate about the justification of the war and rearmament in Europe. However, the most latent controversy indicates the breaking of the pact of silence about the feeling of blame in Germany.
Too much blood, sweat and tears
Like the novel, Berger’s film tells the moral collapse of young recruits in the Imperial German Army during World War I through the story of Paul Bäumer (played by Austrian actor Felix Kammerer). At the heart of the novel beats, among others, the idea that “the war has brutalized us”.
As mentioned, the anti-war dimension is present in both stories, although in a more explicit and total way in Berger’s work. In her, the omission of indoctrination agents, the absence of elements of contrast between the ordinary life of young people and life at the front or the disappearance of the dialectic between the spiritual and the material dominate the discourse.
While Remarque is more subtle in his criticism, concentrating it on the nonsense of war and the distinction between State and Fatherland, in Berger the Army appears as the culprit of the tragedy, because of a kind of military warmongering disconnected from reality of people, in the face of a more condescending and friendly State.
Also the end of the novel and the film diverge. Remarque ends the story of Paul Bäumer a month before the signing of the Armistice. Instead, Berger matches this with the young soldier’s tragic end. So, encourages pathos by exaggerating the tragic incident in the six hours that historically separated the signing of the Armistice from its entry into force.
Remarque was not looking for this effect. The end of the novel happens on a day when there was no news at the front. Berger makes it coincide with the only day that there was. This little detail substantially changes the meaning of the story and makes the title of the film fallacious.
Versions of a fateful experience
In 1930, the American director Lewis Milestone first adapted Remarque’s novel, turning the story into a war movie classic. With her, won the Oscar for best picture.
In Europe it was not without controversy. In that decade of decline, in addition to the closeness in time, the wound of the war was still open, the economic crisis had just broken out and National Socialism was advancing in Germany. These factors made it difficult for the tape to be received, which was banned in several countries or screened with censored scenesand the consideration of the same Remarque in his own country.
The second adaptation of the novel was for television, in 1979. Directed by the American Delbert Mann, supposed a recovery of the story of Remarque reaching a notable result with airs of filmed theater.
Berger’s film, produced by a platform, is characterized by image stylization thanks to a careful photograph that seems to want to recreate a claustrophobic environment.
Berger uses visual metaphors to show how soldiers blend in with the leaden gray of the battlefield sky, or become green with the moss of the mudflats in which they fight hand-to-hand. It turns out to be a stylistic success. to the extent that it expresses their annihilation as human beings.
In addition, self-reflection predominates more than the story of events. This weakens the force of a script made up of almost pictorial portraits.who are only united by a protagonist who is still alive and who embodies the eyes of the viewer.
Not “only the facts count for us”, also the feelings
The devastation produced by the war finds another aesthetic correlate in the soundtrack composed by Volker Bertelmann. Through the thunderous and insistent force of three notes sustained in timeBertelmann infuses an anti-heroic judgment that engulfs the entire narrative.
While the experiences of the young Paul Bäumer run through abundant psychological nuances, the music contains the feeling of ruin, agony and commiseration with which the characters on the German side must be judged. It is the melody of pain. From euphoria to disappointment, one gradually attends the brutalization that Remarque mentions in his novel. At the origin is the enthusiasm that leads the protagonist to commit a recklessness, lying about his age to enlist in the army. Then the disappointment will come that awakens the desire to flee from there.
War cinema brings humanity face to face with its worst miseries. Despite the fact that, in the novel, Remarque adopts a light and everyday air, making language a vehicle and not an obstacle, in Berger’s version the cinematographic language is full of affective density. Expression prevails: feelings are reflected in close-ups, lost looks, with hardly any dialogue.
However, the novel can fool a distracted reader until he comes across an iron thought, for example: “We have lost the meaning of other relationships because they are artificial. Only the facts count for us”, “the war has swept us away” or “while they proclaimed service to the State as sublime, we already knew that the fear of death is much more intense”. In the film, the iron is shaped like a musical score.
Edward Berger may have managed to dismantle a little more the air of heroic epic that sometimes sprouts in hearts with his film. But, showing an insurmountable horror and a vision devoid of hope in humanity, has terribly consolidated the tragic heroism.
Ruth Gutierrez DelgadoProfessor of Script, Epistemology and Audiovisual Poetics, university of Navarra
This article was originally published on The Conversation. read the original.