The screening of All Quiet on the Western Front was a modest affair – two people and a tolerable Tempranillo – but the location made it special.
Watching on my home projector last October with a neighbour, the story playing out on my livingroom wall had finally come home.
A century ago, on the opposite side of the wall, a young advertising copy writer named Erich Remarque hammered out a novel that changed how the world viewed warfare.
After the first US version won the best picture Oscar in 1930, the Netflix remake – this time with a German creative team and cast – snagged this year’s best international film Academy Award.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz got in early with his congratulations. With an eye on Ukraine he called it the right film at the right time for showing the brutal cost of war. “This is a huge success for German film and one can rightly be proud of it,” he said.
Similar praise from all quarters showed how far Germany has come since the Nazis boycotted, then banned entirely, the original US film.
The Nazis – and German conservatives before them – hated Remarque and his novel for calling out their self-pitying and blame-shifting revisionist first World War narratives.
Germany started the war and lost because it was beaten, Remarque reminded his readers, and only after 40 million people lost their lives.
Decades on, like an uneasy ghost, Remarque’s everyman soldier Paul Bäumer continues to haunt Germany. After rave reviews around the world, the new film had a mixed reception from German critics, with many suggesting the only real connection to the source novel was the subject and the name.
“No book is so good that you can’t make a bad film from it,” sniffed the influential Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The Bild tabloid, usually excited by every loud film that comes its way, said the 1930 version’s brilliance – presenting the banality of death in wartime – was absent in the Netflix adaptation: “Here all that’s left is banality.”
With the novel often set reading for state German examinations, the Frankfurter Allgemeine attributed the rush of negative reviews to how “here, there are so many people who have read the source material”.
Many in Germany were similarly underwhelmed in 2007 with the country’s last foreign picture Oscar winner, the Stasi drama The Lives of Others. A worldwide success, the film was felt by some in Germany to have oversimplified a complex subject they had experienced personally.
For Der Spiegel magazine, the problem is not individual films but the gaping hole left in German cinema by the Nazis. They murdered many critical, often leftist artists and forced many others to flee, including Remarque as well as many directors, actors and technicians who helped invent cinema in the 1920s as an artistic medium.
“German film has never quite recovered from that,” suggested Der Spiegel, “and it has never developed a new self-confidence.”
Some historians suggest the self-confidence with which the All Quiet filmmakers played around with the book – and the period – make the film problematic.
“What stands out is its abstinence from ambivalence,” wrote Prof Dr Sönke Neitzel, professor of military history at the University of Potsdam. “We historians research the complexity of events and what such films produce is black-and-white. This film had enough historical content to fill half a page, maximum.”
So what was the verdict on All Quiet on the Western Front in Remarque’s old Berlin apartment block?
After first toasting the writer, then watching the film, my neighbour Charlotte, a prize-winning novelist, was torn.
She found the first hour shocking and gripping, but she disliked the new narrative beyond the trenches and a flabby 30-minute final act not in Remarque’s novel.
“They spelled it all out in the end, fearing their audience can’t cope with complexity,” she said, “but audiences can – if you trust them.”