“War is anything but an adventure” producer Malte Grunert said in his BAFTA acceptance speech before highlighting the tragically topical nature of Remarque’s novel

It is surprisingly good news that Edward Berger’s new film All Quiet on the Western Front won seven awards including best film and the best director at the BAFTA awards, the British Oscars, on Sunday.

It is unusual for a foreign language film to get the top prizes at the BAFTAs. It is even more unusual for a film to win big that raises the alarm about current British foreign policy.

Edward Berger’s film, loosely based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1920s classic anti-war novel, is a controlled but passionate indictment of the militarism that led to the carnage of the first world war.

It shows how patriotic fervour in Germany enticed millions of young people to join up and the unspeakable horrors they experienced as a result, before most of them died. It is a brave and brutal re-imagining of life on the frontline of a great power conflict bogged down in endless trench warfare.

It also unflinchingly exposes the cynicism of the politicians and generals who calculate their tactical moves in terms of tens of thousands of expected deaths.

It is an impressive piece of film making technically and artistically but it carries an unmistakable message; never trust your leaders when they are telling you to wage war on their behalf in foreign lands.

“War is anything but an adventure” producer Malte Grunert said in his BAFTA acceptance speech before highlighting the tragically topical nature of Remarque’s novel.

Once again, leaders of the major military powers are trying to convince their respective populations that military escalation is the only way forward in a European war. Putin is unleashing a new offensive and the Western powers are competing with each other in fighting talk and tanks promised to Ukraine. Politicians are shuttling in and out of Kiev to be photographed shoulder to shoulder with President Zelensky.

The anti-war movement’s calls for peace talks are dismissed even though senior US generals are on record saying negotiations are inevitable and necessary. In the British Labour party criticising NATO is an expellable offence. Some right-wing politicians in Europe are saying that dismembering the Russian Federation needs to be the endgame.

As we get nearer and nearer to open NATO-Russian confrontation, next to no-one is actually bothering to consider the hell this would unleash. Watching All Quiet on the Western Front might be a good place to start. Of course, at the time nuclear conflagration was not a concern. On this matter too there is collective denial. Ludicrously some even seem to be reassured by Boris Johnson’s judgement that Putin would never use the nuclear option.

It is probably still true that leaders on both sides would prefer to avoid such a confrontation. But this is another reason why the memory of World War One revived by All Quiet on the Western Front is so relevant. No major power actually planned the war or thought the industrial massacre that followed was the best way forward. Hardly anyone wanted any sort of war in 1914, and no one wanted the war they actually got. Famously the great powers sleepwalked into the war, this being the logic of inter-imperialist rivalry when it goes military.

It is worth remembering too that all sides justified entering war on humanitarian or democratic grounds to try and get their populations onside. Behind the closed doors of Westminster and Whitehall, the British establishment discussed it for what it was, a conflict with their main imperial and industrial rival Germany. Publicly it was pitched as a war for democracy and for the national rights of poor little Belgium.

As the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw has commented, All Quiet on the Western Front has ‘awakened our terror of a new European war.’ All involved in the production should be congratulated. Anyone who hasn’t seen the film should watch it. Then get out in the streets and stop our leaders sleepwalking into another catastrophe.

Join the #PeaceNow – Stop the War in Ukraine National Demonstration on Sat 25 Feb.

20 Feb 2023 by Chris Nineham

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