Visually arresting, wonderfully acted, and almost unbearably bleak (as only a World War I trench drama can be), director Edward Berger has created the filmic equivalent of Erich Maria Lemarque’s language (“We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces”). The miserable existence of the characters is interspersed with moments of such great humanity – the joy at the theft and cooking of a shared goose and the circulated kerchief of a French girl for sniffing come to mind – the pointlessness of it all is underscored.
But there are problems.
First, the dramatization of a last-ditch attack before the official armistice is over-the-top. In the book, Paul, our protagonist, dies on a peaceful day, which is in many ways more poignant. Here, he and his comrades are felled after a foolhardy and hubristic final charge ordered by a madman. The plot change feels insecure. Similarly, the injection of peace negotiations allows for some clunky foreshadowing along the lines of, “If you dictate such harsh terms, Pierre, there’s gonna’ be schnitzel to pay!”
Second, Saving Private Ryan has placed such a premium on verisimilitude in war pictures that they seem to one-up each other in conveying both the horror and the disorientation. Which is normally to the good, save for an overuse of technical wizardry that can often border on the distracting (I am wondering if the drone is the new CGI). At some point, you feel a little dirty for being exposed to so many new and awful ways to depict death.