At the start of awards season, Edward Berger’s All Quiet On The Western Front was a lock for International, but few could have foreseen how much further it would go. Alongside that nomination, the German film is now also in the running for Best Picture, having made the shortlist for Sound, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Visual Effects, and Cinematography.
This grand haul follows its performance at the Baftas, where it gathered an astonishing 14 nominations in almost all major categories. As a result, the film joins Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2002) in second place to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1981), which still holds the Bafta record for nominations with 16. It’s a double-whammy that will surely prompt some second thoughts at Netflix: in a year that the streamer invested in some of cinema’s biggest names, one of its biggest critical hits is an foreign-language remake with no major stars, from a director best known for serial TV.
Based on the real-life experiences of writer Erich Maria Remarque as an 18-year-old conscript in the last six months of the First World War, All Quiet On The Western Front was first issued as a novel at the end of 1928. Universal’s Carl Laemmle Jr, son of a German-born Jewish immigrant who co-founded the studio, moved quickly on the property, and a $1.2 million adaptation was on American screens less than two years later. That short turnaround was no mean feat; director Lewis Milestone had 2,000 extras at his command, although a bigger challenge lay in his future, when dealing with Frank Sinatra on Ocean’s 11 in 1960, at the height of the singer’s power.
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The film racked up a number of firsts, being the first war film of the talkie era to score with the Academy. It was also the first adaptation of a book to win the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as the first Best Picture Oscar-winner to also take Best Director. Outside America, its premiere was such an event that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party banned the film a week later, causing Remarque to flee to Switzerland soon after. Back in the U.S., the film’s reputation continued to endure, even surviving the transition to color, and has been name-checked many times since, notably by Steven Spielberg as an influence on 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. But as an I.P. it was left largely untouched, except for a 1979 version best known for starring Richard Thomas (The Waltons’ John-Boy), despite having a stellar cast including Ian Holm, Donald Pleasence, and Ernest Borgnine and being surprisingly grim for a TV movie.
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That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts, and rumors of a remake first began to swirl around 2010. First there were suggestions that a post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe might be in the frame to play the film’s war-ravaged innocent Paul Bäumer, and a year later that was followed by more concrete reports that director Mimi Leder would be handling it as her first theatrical feature since 2000’s Pay It Forward. The road to Netflix began in earnest almost exactly three years ago, however—just before the Berlin Film Festival in 2020, producer Malte Grunert contacted Edward Berger, a Berlin-based director who broke out in 2015 with the hit Cold War series Deutschland 83 and followed it with TV work in the States on AMC’s The Terror and Showtime’s Patrick Melrose.
As a German, Berger was not daunted by comparisons to Milestone’s 1930 classic. “For me,” he said, “the big reason to make it again is was to go back to the German novel and make a German film out of it. Which is something that no English or American filmmaker can theoretically do, because they don’t have that heritage.” Interestingly, the film’s only significant festival play was at TIFF, where it had its World Premiere. Berger’s film did not feature at all in the festival’s Audience Awards, seen as an important Oscar bellwether, losing out to The Fabelmans, Glass Onion and Women Talking.