Wars, films about wars, and the hellscape in Ukraine

There’s a weird synchronicity between the new German adaptation of WWI novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the ongoing nightmare in Ukraine.

Here’s a weird case of synchronicity. (Or are all synchronicities strange by definition? . Anyway:) .


German filmmakers have finally made an adaptation of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the unique and uniquely impactful German novel by Erich Maria Remarque published 10 years after the end of the First World War. It became an international bestseller immediately, then as a Hollywood (!) movie that scored the first Oscar for Best Picture that was based on a book. There’ve been other adaptations, mostly English language, none German, till Netflix produced this.

Much magnificent literature emerged from that war, but “All Quiet” (German title Im Westen nichts Neues, or “In the West Nothing New”) stands alone. It was criticized, burned and banned by the Nazis. It’s as if it took nearly a century for the German psyche — an absurd abstraction I know — to grapple with its meaning, then turn it into an amazing film.

The new adaptation is the antithesis of the WWII movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Nothing in it glamourizes or justifies war. (I grant Steven Spielberg had more of a case for his war than Remarque for his.) It nails the sheer inexpressible nightmare of running toward total strangers determined to murder you before you slaughter them, then continuing to do so for years with little result or reason. No wonder that war initiated concepts on post-traumatic stress disorder. The phenomenon was so obvious. Almost no one who survived that war could speak about it afterward, except occasionally to others who’d experienced it too.

What’s the weird sync? Of all the wars in all the decades since then, the one most resembling the First World War is probably the current hellscape in Ukraine.

Like that conflict, the Ukraine war began with expectations of a swift result, then settled largely into positional warfare, hand-to-hand fighting, mutual shelling, even trenches. It has fronts — eastern, northern, southern, though no western. Casualties are horrific. It’s hard to watch the 2022 “All Quiet” without a sense of overhanging shadows.

Yet it’s been in the works since 2006, when rights were acquired. Filming began in March 2021; casting, script, etc. were mostly done long before. So the shooting took place before the shooting, as it were, yet there are such echoes.

Of course there are vast differences too. I’m talking about a general feel, a sense. The nuclear potential looms over the war in Ukraine, acting as a sort of imperfect leash, holding back total disaster. You saw that this week when missiles hit Polish terrain. All sides scrambled to limit repercussions; in other circumstances they’d all scramble to embellish and lie for their own benefit. Even Russia praised U.S. President Joe Biden for his “measured” response. So far it’s working.

Another change is the role of what were virtual or actual colonies then, like China, India and Indonesia. They’ve refrained from fully endorsing or condemning either side. They have a sense of the hypocrisies involved: why no such outrage over invading Iraq, for instance; and the role of sanctions as a weapon of mighty economies versus developing ones. They bring a different, less blinkered perspective. It’s as if they’re testing their ability to engage these crises.

The new film, unlike the book, adds scenes of generals and politicians, distant from the carnage, pulling the strings. I suppose it’s meant to add historical perspective, a sort of Brechtian “alienation” from the horror which allows you to learn from it. For me the tactic seemed a bit academic, and didn’t quite work.

In the film, the final death occurs in a stupid attack ordered by a maniacal officer minutes before the armistice. That never happened and isn’t in the book. The “hero” dies a month before, reaching for a butterfly. (That’s a spoiler but we’re not talking about a heist movie.) The point rings true but avoids the random, existential nature of death, in war or not, that some may prefer to point-making.

German society at large has been admirable in slowly and rather uniquely coming to terms with its historic responsibility. We owe them, from that book to this film.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[