At the Golden Globes, the Netflix production “Nothing New in the West” went empty-handed, and Edward Berger’s anti-war film then set a record at the British BAFTA Awards: Never before has a German production received so many awards at the BAFTA Awards scooped. Seven and even those for the “Best Film”. “What a night, I can’t believe it,” enthused director Edward Berger, who also received the coveted award for best director. “A very great honor” are the seven prizes, said the 53-year-old in his acceptance speech.
The triumphal procession finally reached its climax on March 12, when the drama scooped up four Oscar trophies in Hollywood.
First German language film adaptation
Until recently, there had only been English-language film adaptations of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel “Nothing New in the West”. The director Edward Berger dared a German interpretation – and it has it all. It has been running on the Netflix streaming platform since the end of October 2022.
Some critics praise the remake as a successful anti-war drama, others complain that the director invented new storylines and left out characters and crucial scenes.
Edward Berger: “Movie more topical than ever”
Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, published in 1929, paints the portrait of a generation that euphorically went to the front after leaving school and ultimately perished in the murderous war machine of the First World War.
For director Edward Berger, the topic is just as relevant today, more than 100 years after the First World War as it was then. In times of growing populism and nationalism, it is even more relevant than ever.
War, crises and changing times drive people
Three years ago, when Berger started filming, he was worried about political developments in Europe and the world, as he told DW in an interview ahead of the Bafta awards ceremony at the end of January. “Brexit in the UK, a right-wing government in Hungary, a shift to the right in the US, France and Germany and rising right-wing extremists in many countries in Europe – suddenly guarantors of peace like the EU, which gave us a carefree life for 70 years, were called into question placed.”
He could never have imagined hate speech from heads of government or elected representatives of the people. “This rhetoric seeps into the street. On the subway on the way to work, I overhear sentences that could have been formulated in Germany in the 1930s. Sentences like: ‘We should put Angela Merkel against the wall ‘.”
For him, this resurgence of populism and nationalism was the decisive reason for realizing the film “Nothing New in the West”.
“It was time to make a film that reminds us that maybe things weren’t so different before World War I (1914-1918) that we’re back where we were before, too when we thought the times would never come back.”
In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “Nothing New in the West” was one of the greatest successes in German literary history. In 1930 the work was filmed for the first time in the USA and won two Oscars. A second implementation followed in 1979 and now Berger’s third.
The film tells the story of a young soldier in the First World War. The Austrian Felix Kammerer plays him
Why a German version now?
Why so late? “There are always heroes in American and British films,” says Berger, “but there can’t be any heroes in a German war film,” he explains.
“America was dragged into the First World War, England defended itself.” That leaves a very different collective memory for the people and also for the filmmakers who grew up in these countries.
“Every decision is influenced by feelings. As I grew up in Germany, a country where war stories are not about pride and honor – like maybe in England or America – but about guilt, shame and responsibility towards history , it is in the nature of things that this version of ‘Nothing New in the West’ is quite different from its predecessors from America and England.”
The setting of “Nothing New in the West” is the German western front against France in the First World War.
In American war films you can shoot a German because he’s the bad guy. In German war films, on the other hand, “every death is a bad death”.
Berger re-tells an old story
When criticized that his film, unlike its predecessors from 1930 and 1979, was only loosely based on the novel, Berger replied: “Remarque himself once said: ‘A book is a book. And if it’s made into a film, it’s a new medium.'” Filmmakers should and could take liberties. His film is just a reinterpretation. “The First World War was more than 100 years ago. Today we have a completely different perspective on it.”
Of course, Berger and his team tried to follow the plot and characters of the novel as much as possible. But Berger was primarily interested in the inner conflicts of the main character Paul Bäumer and focused on them.
With false enthusiasm in the First World War
“The young Paul Bäumer goes to war with enthusiasm. He believes that thanks to his innocence, his youth, he will be a hero. But he soon realizes that everything he learned as a child socialized in Germany nothing in the mud of war. He loses his soul and turns into a killing machine. And there’s no way he’ll ever go back to where he came from.” This is how Berger summarizes the core theme of the novel and indirectly quotes Remarque’s foreword to his novel: “This book is not meant to be an accusation or a confession. It is only meant to attempt to tell about a generation that was devastated by war – even if it escaped its shells.”
In fact, his protagonist is brutalized in the course of the film and transformed from an enthusiastic new recruit to a soldier traumatized by the war. “If you don’t lose your life in war, you certainly lose your soul,” agrees Berger.
New storyline with Daniel Brühl as Matthias Erzberger
The director and his team have also incorporated a new plot line into the story, in which Daniel Brühl plays the social democrat Matthias Erzberger. He clarifies the sometimes bureaucratic absurdity of the war and classifies the events in terms of contemporary history.
Erzberger, who signed the armistice between France and Germany in Compiègne in a forest outside Paris after the abdication of the German Kaiser in 1918, is a very important figure in German history for Berger. “Today we have the privilege of history to know where the signing of this armistice led. That the military later used Erzberger as a scapegoat to blame for the defeat in the war.” Erzberger was murdered by nationalists two years after the end of the war.
The ceasefire negotiations also serve as a means to an end in the film to demonstrate that the conflict continued to smolder after the war ended.
The First World War was only the beginning. “17 million soldiers had already lost their lives by then. And only 15 years later the madness got worse. Remarque did not have this perspective when he wrote his novel before the Second World War.”
This is an updated version of the article dated January 9, 2023.