Oscar week is catch-up time for "All Quiet on the Western Front." Having barely caused a stir after an October release in theaters and on Netflix, this German antiwar epic is now an Oscar lock as Best International Feature and also the recipient of a wowza nine nominations, including Best Picture, just behind presumptive favorite "Everything Everywhere All at Once."
Is a major Oscar upset in the offing? The recent British Oscars handed "All Quiet" seven wins, including Best Picture, and prizes to German-born Edward Berger for his direction and adapted screenplay. This despite the fact that the dialogue is in German with English subtitles. What does this movie have that everyone's been missing until award season rolled around?
As it turns out, plenty. News footage of military and civilian casualties in the Ukraine is a timely and timeless warning about the horror of war, regardless of what side you're on.
Did you know that the first film version of Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 novel won a Best Picture Oscar in 1930, but with American actors cast as WW1 Fatherland recruits? Ditto the 1979 TV movie starring Richard Thomas.
Does that stack the odds against "All Quiet" in the big race? In 94 years of Oscar history, only one remake -- Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," an Americanized 2006 retelling of Hong Kong's 2002 "Infernal Affairs" -- took the Best Picture prize. And only one foreign-language film -- 2019's "Parasite" from South Korea -- ever grabbed the top trophy.
Still, Oscar has a history, be it "Rocky" or "CODA," of rooting for the underdog. Among Academy voters I've unofficially polled, the consensus -- even among those who came late to seeing the movie -- is that "All Quiet on the Western Front" is really, really good.
Know what? They're really, really right. Berger's take on the material grabs you from the get-go with tension that won't quit. In an early scene, we see an unknown soldier gunned down on the front, after which his uniform is removed, sent to a laundry where the bullet holes are sewn up and then shipped off for a new enlistee to wear as the carnage continues.
It's one such recruit, Paul Bäumer (a superb Felix Kammerer), that the film follows into battle, first as a rah-rah proponent of German nationalism and then as a soldier too broken in flesh and spirit to remember why the war started in the first place.
Not since Stanley Kubrick's magnificent and moving "Paths of Glory" in 1957 has a film so vividly captured the agony of World War I trench warfare. Berger is unsparing in his depiction of what guns, bombs, machetes and knives can do to the human body.
In an indelible scene of brutality and intimacy, Paul stabs a French soldier (Radek Brodil) and then sits by him in a bomb crater for the long siege of pain that leads to his death. It's here that Kammerer shows Paul morph from the raw hate with which he's taught to regard the enemy to the natural compassion he feels for the suffering of a fellow human being.
Berger provides ruthless perspective by showing military and political power brokers negotiate at a safe distance from the battlefield where youth are sacrificed like pawns in a war game not of their making. It was ever so, and that's the tragedy.
You could argue that "All Quiet on the Western Front" teaches us nothing new about the ferocity and futility of war. But since history is still destined to repeat itself -- just look at those Russian tanks rolling into the Ukraine -- can we ever get enough reminders? That's what makes this dark horse in the Oscar race an essential lesson that's impossible to shake.