World War I film wins Oscar in nod to Ukraine war

War has long been a fixture of the cinema industry and it is no surprise that amid the Ukraine war, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ wins this prestigious award

Movie "All quiet on the Western Front", directed by Lewis Milestone, sreenplay by Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, produced by Carl Laemmle jr., Universal Pictures USA 1930.
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Movie "All quiet on the Western Front", directed by Lewis Milestone, sreenplay by Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, produced by Carl Laemmle jr., Universal Pictures USA 1930.

World War I film wins Oscar in nod to Ukraine war

War has long been a fixture of the cinema industry.

While World War I appears to be a "rehearsal" that reality crafted and cinema interpreted, the Russian-Ukrainian war, which effectively began in 2014, is itself a reality that cinema is currently translating on several fronts.

For “All Quiet on the Western Front” to grab an Oscar was no surprise. The hot winds of the Ukraine war helped give rise to this win.

The movie is set during WWI, but the horrors of that war are quite redolent of today's, despite the tremendous sophistication in modern weapons and technologies.

Aside from being a German film (not American, as was the case with the original 1930 adaptation, which won Best Picture at the time), the movie has an advantage in that its director presents death and violence using the latest methods and arts of war and special effects.

Portraying death

The opening scenes are different in Edward Berger's film and Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-winning 1930 version. Both opening scenes are different from the beginning of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, from which they were adapted.

The book’s first chapter describes the happiness of the young recruits on a good day where food was presented to them in abundance. The pains and tragedies of war come later, precisely after the third chapter, in harmony with the progression of a descriptive novel.

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Hollywood actor and film director Sean Penn meets Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky as he hands over his own statuette âOscarâ to the Ukrainian president in Kyiv, Ukraine on November 08, 2022.

Milestone’s movie, on the other hand, begins with a door opening onto the street, as a large horde of recruits heads towards the front. The camera then shifts to a classroom where a professor is telling his students about the necessity of defending Germany to protect the motherland from its enemies, a feat the new generation is the most capable to do.

As for Berger’s 2022 version, the third after Milestone’s and a flopped TV version directed by Delbert Mann in 1979) begins with the intensity of war itself and then returns to where the first film began, showing the battalion of volunteers and the professor’s sermon as he calls on his students to defend Germany.

With this nonlinear sequence, Berger gives us a taste of what’s to come. The director will constantly shift between the frontlines and behind-the-scenes of fighting, including the negotiations and the divergence in political and military positions between the Germans and the French.

With this nonlinear sequence, Berger gives us a taste of what's to come. The director will constantly shift between the frontlines and behind-the-scenes of fighting, including the negotiations and the divergence in political and military positions between the Germans and the French.

Neither the novelist nor Milestone followed this approach. Berger adds new scenes to the original narrative. Berger created many characters that are not mentioned in the novel to corral more sympathy for the German soldiers and imply that they were victims of the German politics of the time. Milestone did the same, but without such additions.

The director often moves away from the frontlines and the main character, Paul Boehmer (played by Felix Kammerer). He places Paul in front of the camera here and away from it when he wishes to expand the scope of events.

In short, the film recounts the experience of German young men who were promised by the National Institution that they would return from the war safe and be rewarded for what they had accomplished. That does not happen, as they discover the pain and tragedies of war and the fear of death embodied in every bullet or missile fired at them.

Berger's scenes are painful, but also an exaggerated showbusiness product. They lack the honest, emotional feel of tragedy, instead portraying death in violent scenes of bodies and limbs catapulted by bombings and soldiers losing their lives, their scattered body parts collected in bags and their uniforms removed to be patched up for reuse.

History repeats itself

With a budget of $36 million, this newest adaptation is more sophisticated and benefits from the great technological advances and progress in production capabilities during the last 92 years since the production of the first movie. Some of the scenes in the 1930 version had been deleted in its silent screening in France, especially those scenes depicting the fall of French victims.

At times, the movie breaks away from scenes of war and violence to depict beautiful landscapes for those yearning for beauty amid the chaos. But these aesthetic moments are but temporary breaks from the harsh reality.

DreamWorks Pictures
Dean-Charles Chapman, director Sam Mendes and George MacKay on the set of Mendes' new epic, 1917. 

There is no doubt that the film carries an anti-war message, but the path chosen to convey the message is by justifying that this film is "the best that war movies can be". Berger tries to assert this and almost succeeds, but his desire to boast of sophisticated production eclipses the sincere human message his film is supposed to convey.

The spectator feels as though this movie is an early parallel of the current Ukrainian war, as it shows the reality of the war on the ground in cinema perspective. It also serves as a mirror to Europe's various wars before and after the Napoleon era.

Europe's fatal wars are like a game of chess between parties who excel at defeat. They invade countries then lose them. They raid here and withdraw there. They open battles on various fronts, both military and civil. Therefore, the current wars seem to be an extension of what we see in "All Quiet on the Western Front," and even, we may say with some irony, since Napoleon lost his war against Britain in the famous Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

A long record

In the West, the wars waged by the United States since WWI (1914-1918) inspired many Hollywood films in the years that followed. Lewis Milestones' "All Quiet on the Western Front" is just one of them. Others include "Wings" by William A. Wellman, the first movie to win an Oscar in 1928; and "The Big Parade" by King Vidor in 1925. Over 40 other war films were produced in the second half of the 1920s.

In 1930 alone, 12 films about WWI were produced, including the first version of "All Quiet." Most of these were produced in Hollywood, but one German film, "The Western Front 1918," directed by George Wilhelm Pabst, had the same dose of war criticism as Milestone's, even if it failed to achieve the same standing.

That war remains present in today's movies, as demonstrated by Edward Berger's film and Sam Mendes' 2019 movie "1917". In fact, the Mendes motion picture, which revolved around the mission of two British soldiers who had to storm the German front to reach a distant British division, is one of 42 non-American films about WWI produced between 2000 and 2022. These European productions were made in Britain, France, Latvia, Italy, Russia, Austria, and others.

The same goes for WWII, with over 500 motion pictures produced about those years. Several other films were also made about the Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Iraqi wars, leading to the current war raging in Ukraine between two neighbouring countries, one of which considers the other to be an imminent danger.

The same goes for WWII, with over 500 motion pictures produced about those years. Several other films were also made about the Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Iraqi wars, leading to the current war raging in Ukraine between two neighbouring countries, one of which considers the other to be an imminent danger.

Two movies wrapped in one

Recently, the Berlin International Film Festival screened "Superpower", a film about the Ukrainian war directed by American actor and director Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufman. This came as no surprise given Penn's known take on the ongoing war and his unconditional solidarity with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to the extent that he dedicated one of his two Oscars to the Ukrainian president.

But the film is not symmetrical. It is more like two distinct movies, with divergent interests, narratives, tempo, and messages; two halves compiled into one tape without attempting to dissolve the fundamental artistic disparities to unify the context.

In the first half of the film, which directors Penn and Kaufman recorded less than a year before Russia invaded the disputed territories, includes interviews with citizens about Zelenskyy and his life and history, conveying divergent opinions about the president. Not all comments are in his favor, but they give a clear, informative depiction of his attributes.

The second half begins with the start of the war. The two directors, satisfied with what they had filmed, were ready to return to Hollywood when the invasion began. But they decided to stay and reinforce what they had filmed with extensive interviews with Zelenskyy himself. This part, which shows a different perspective based on elongated interviews and scenes that combine Penn and Zelenskyy, is less engaging.

The interview discusses what seem to be empty matters. Neither Sean Penn, who is in front of the camera most of the time, asks any in-depth questions, nor does the president say much more than he has repeatedly stated. Thus, the film inches closer to "propaganda" than an independent movie about the war itself. We hear the words "freedom" and "democracy" often in the conversation, but not much is revealed about how the citizens of Gdansk and other Ukrainian regions that Russia reclaimed by force were treated.

There is a clear contradiction between what the citizens said and what Penn and Kaufman tried, rather enthusiastically, to convey.

Previous Ukrainian films that discussed the Ukrainian issue had shown a more comprehensive humanitarian image.

Tragedy of Ukrainian life

Ukraine's history is complicated. During and after WWII, the country's borders were lost and reclaimed time and time again.

In the 1971 movie "The White Bird Marked with Black" by Yuri Ilyenko, a poor Ukrainian family lives in a border area that is considered to be Romanian for a period, then is annexed by Poland, then becomes Ukrainian.

2022 BFI London Film Festival
The Ukrainian tragedy showing on the face of a woman in «Kondike» [Kedr Film].

When WWII broke out, the members of this large family are divided: some decide to remain neutral, some join the Ukrainian resistance, and others join the Soviet Army. In this movie about survival, Ilyenko, who is also a director of photography, gives a poetic outlook that reflects the tragedy of life but ends on a hopeful, optimist note, as was common in Soviet cinema at the time, which favoured films that reflect a shining image of the USSR.

It is no surprise, then, that the film received the first prize at the Moscow Film Festival that year.

After the fall of the communist regime in Russia, a liberal trend prevailed in the movie industry of ex-USSR Eastern European countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Ukraine produced more films about the 2014 war with the Russians, as a political and social indicator of the Ukrainian point of view.

A family crisis

One of these movies is "Kondike" by Maryna Er Gorbach in 2022, which captures the chaos of life in a village located in the Donbass region, close to where a Malaysian civilian plane exploded in 2014 during the war between the separatists and nationalists.

The film captures the general atmosphere of the secluded region which the war takes by surprise. The movie starts with a huge explosion following the crash of the Malaysian plane with about 300 passengers on board after a ground missile is fired at the aircraft.

The director approaches the true event from afar. She shows distant fire in the horizon and ambulance sirens. Nearby is a wall that collapses as a result of the explosion, almost like a point of no return between one reality and another.

The heroine Irka (Oksana Cherkashina) and her husband Tolik (Serhiy Shadrin) are expecting a baby in two months. Half of their house is destroyed when the plane falls, including the protective wall, but Irka refuses to leave in search of another shelter, despite her husband's attempts to convince her.

In the meantime, a group of Ukrainian separatists confiscate the family's car and demand that Tolik slaughter his only cow to feed them. Irka watches all this in dismay because she supports the nationalists who oppose secession.

As she and her husband drive off in their rickety car, along with a Dutch couple who had come to check in on their daughter who was aboard the plane, the separatists stop the car. In a poignant scene, Irka runs in every which way to try to escape, and her husband runs after her trying to calm her down.

Garmata Film Productions
Atlantis; from "Atlantis: Post-2014 Crisis"

Irka watches with great despair as the miserable situation unfolds. She is the focal character in the movie, which the director narrates calmly and cautiously, with elongated, trancelike scenes. There is always something going on: smoke in the distance, men approaching, cars passing, others stopping, people moving. The director excels in the act of contemplation, and the actors deliver sincere performances.

Scenes that reflect on life

"Atlantis", a 2020 Ukrainian movie by Valentyn Vasyanovych, is another acclaimed film that began screening before the Russian invasion and continued showing after it.

When he wrote the film and began shooting it in 2019, Vasyanovych predicted that the Russian-Ukrainian war would return, but his guess was in 2025, not 2022. Despite emerging victorious and defeating Russia, the film shows Ukraine in a defeated state.

The movie follows two ex-soldiers, Sergiy (Andriy Rymaryk) and Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak), who hate the war they fought and seek to start a new life but don't know how to find it. Their work in a metal factory forces them to accept harsh conditions at work as they suffer rampant poverty.

The capitalist system devours the frail workers without care. But the situation is not entirely a result of the economic system, but of a universal outcome that the world failed to contain. The atmosphere depicted in the film is a collapsed and polluted environment. The situation worsens shortly after the factory closes its doors and its workers become unemployed. After Ivan's death, Sergiy remains alone, convinced that his life is not worth living.

On the brighter side, there's a quest to make things right. A campaign to count war causalities, identify them, and bury them with dignity after they were left in the battlefield is launched.

Upon joining the team, Sergiy finds a way out of his life crisis. He is always looking for a catharsis. In a previous scene, we see him filling the wide iron container of a tractor with water and lighting a fire under it to take a hot bath. The scene seems like a "caricature", but despite the smile it puts on the spectator's faces, it carries a profound emotional and perhaps saddening message.

Vasyanovych understands the importance of letting the picture talk. The scenes are often taken from distant shots. The camera does not move much. The resulting contemplative scenes shot from afar convey the general upsetting situation the director wants to present.

Routine prevails, but nothing in this routine is dull. We follow the exciting life of this individual, and the situation in his country, which is no less exciting. The movie deals with the ordeal of men who lose their purpose in life and its pleasures, while women -albeit not as many- are more mindful of what they want to do.

Three films with messages

Two other movies about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict are "Once Upon a Time in Ukraine: The War" by Igor Parfenov and "Choice" by Elena Voloshin. However, as Ukrainian directors struggle to find financial support and production capabilities, the number of feature films about the current war is shrinking, dwarfed by the large number of documentaries produced in recent years.

These films include "The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov", about the Ukrainian politician who has been detained for years for his opposition to the war and the Ukrainian army and his willingness to defend the homeland; as well as "No Obvious Signs" by Alina Horlova.

In the current war, a number of Ukrainian directors rushed to film the events, most of which –for understandable reasons– are documentaries. Like any other war, professional or new filmmakers try to seize the opportunity to portray the situation on the ground: the citizens, the destruction, the pain, and through these elements, the dimensions they wish to convey according to a national position.

Last year, the Venice Film Festival celebrated Ukrainian cinema in a message directed against the Russian invasion, with screenings of three films: "Freedom on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom" by Evgeny Afineevskyand "The Kiev Trial" by Sergei Loznitsa and "Luxembourg, Luxembourg" by Antonio Lukich.

Afineevsky's "Freedom on Fire" is his third documentary on the Ukrainian conflict, which dates back to the 2014 civil war between the nationalists and the separatists. His first film was "Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom" and his second was "Pray for Ukraine."

The third film talks about Ukraine today, through interviews with doctors, soldiers, and journalists who woke up to the great invasion.

"The Kiev Trial" by Loznitsa depicts the trials of the Nazis in the Russian capital, Moscow, after WWII.

"All Quiet on the Western Front" in its recent version comes at the right time to demonstrate the horrors of war throughout history. Comparison is possible despite the different timespan, policies, and tools.

As the world prepares for a new phase of this ongoing war, the question arises about its ferocity and how far it can go before it reaches a disastrous end with catastrophic consequences for everyone.

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