With so many film industry awards taking place before the Oscars ceremony, the Oscar winners tend to be relatively predictable before the actual broadcast begins. So the biggest surprises are reserved for nominations. One of the big surprises this year has been Netflix’s overall strength No change in the west, which garnered nine Academy nominations, including Best Picture. It has won numerous industry and tech awards, and has been featured in the standout 2022 Best of Film Awards from film critics circles. At the BAFTAs (primarily the British Oscars), it garnered an impressive 14 nominations and won in seven categories, including Best Picture and Best Director. This is now considered one of the few opportunities for a long shot in upsetting the putative leader Everything Everywhere Everything at once for the best film in the United States. This is especially surprising because it is probably the worst film out of the 10 nominees.
This may seem like a harsh judgment, especially for a film with such impeccable technical credentials, coming from a story with such lasting cross-generational impact. The German-language film, a new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1929 anti-war novel, takes place between the tough negotiations to end World War I and the gruesome fate of a group of young German soldiers. It’s a timeless message about the horrors of war. (So timeless, in fact, that it has already inspired an adaptation that won the 1930 Best Picture award.) But director Edward Berger uses a surprising amount of gore to get the message across, to the point where bona fide anti-war feels oddly regressive.
Filmmaker François Truffaut has been consistently quoted (and even more often paraphrased) about anti-war films. Here’s what he told Gene Siskel in Chicago Grandstand 50 years ago, in 1973: “I find violence in movies very ambiguous. For example, some movies claim to be anti-war, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an anti-war movie. Every film about war becomes pro-war.” 2022 No change in the west is the latest film that responds to this provocative and thoughtful idea with, “But what if we did Really brutal?”
This is not necessarily a problem in itself. You can’t blame Berger for disagreeing with Truffaut that his visually grotesque, disturbing film inherently glorifies battles. His approach No change in the west seems to be part of a conversation about how best to portray death in combat without embellishing it. However, most of what the new version brings to the conversation is the extreme and pervasiveness of its violence.
I never feel like a Berger to try glorify war. German soldiers are portrayed as deceived by nationalistic speeches, completely untrained and living in a state of constant terror. The film even eliminates some respite by cutting out the longer passes some soldiers get in the book. Viewers hardly notice the act of heroism throughout the 140 minutes of the film. The best soldiers can hope for is a too-brief, too-late glimmer of humanity in the midst of carnage. They’re more likely to stick to simple, stupid happiness that eventually wears off. But like many war movies following in the footsteps Private Ryan, the film emulates the brutal carnage of the film’s harrowing opening segments without adding significantly to its impact. Instead, Berger tries to gain more power by expanding the blood range.
Probably Spielberg’s film isn’t definitively anti-war either. But its ambiguous quality does Private Ryan especially fascinating 25 years later. The way it places acts of utter horror alongside empathetic characterizations – and yes, sentimental patriotism – denies viewers an easy set of answers. This is characteristic of Spielberg’s later period, who then nominated him for Best Picture Fabelmans, which includes a scene where his young Spielberg deputy, Sammy, enthusiastically takes on the technical challenge of making a war movie. The fervor that Sammy, his cast and crew bring to the project is like a tacit admission to the perverse artistic satisfaction of depicting grueling violence.
On paper, 2022 Everyone silence he seems less conflicted about the meaning of the war. For better or for worse, there is no Tom Hanks character urging young soldiers to “deserve” the sacrifices around them. The soldiers drift by, fighting (mostly unsuccessfully) for their lives in the trenches of World War I, and the end of the crawl more or less informs the viewer that their deaths have been in vain. They are not heroes, they are victims of authority figures engaging in high-stakes negotiations far away. Action on the battlefield in Everyone silence feels like an opening Private Ryan, not the violence of the mission that comes after: bodies are crushed and torn apart by tank tracks. The man figuratively slits his own throat in despair. A soldier covered in mud stabs an enemy nearly to death, then tries to help them as they bleed out painfully.
However, by emphasizing the united situation of these young soldiers, Berger flattens them as heroes. Then he kills them one by one. Overall, it’s not that different from what happens in the 1930 movie. It lacks the character-based austerity that the earlier version comes out of its relative restraint; it is clear in the characters’ disillusionment with their leaders and their country. On Letterboxd, writer and horror lover Louis Peitzman goes so far as to compare 2022 to 2022. Everyone silence to a slasher, and it’s a perceptive comparison. No one is safe from death in this film, and as the action drags on, some deaths unfold with increasingly cruel and complex ironies that go beyond standard battlefield casualties.
Going further in comparison, the existence of 1930 No change in the West makes the 2022 version feel a bit like one of those horror remakes that became widespread in the late 2000s. There is not much nuance, perspective or originality in it. Instead, it superficially updates the story by adding more contemporary special effects. It’s a reboot of War Is Hell, with a stark palette of war movies as standardized as the grain of the music video in Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes slasher remakes, highlighting rich mud tones and a pale, uniform blue. Like these remakes, it lacks the soul and verve of a good exploitation movie. The visceral texture is as similar to the set decoration as it was in 2003 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This makes 2022 Everyone silence both outliers and retreads at the Oscars. Although foreign-language films have become more common for Best Picture nominations since the category was expanded in 2009, they still have an advantage over their English-language counterparts. Everyone silenceHeavy violence makes it a particularly daring choice. Many award movies have blood stains, but when it comes to clean guts, Everyone silence probably boasts the biggest volume this side of Guillermo del Toro’s nominee – or Mel Gibson’s similarly carnage-obsessed 2016 war film Hacksaw pass. This should act as a strong counterpoint to slick, stubbornly context-free wargames Top Gun: Maverickwho timidly avoids naming the actual enemy so as not to alienate the global audience in search of a good time.
In practice, however No change in the west seems like a more empty gesture towards what an anti-war epic could look like in 2023. Last fall, as the nominees for awards season hit theaters and streamers, Netflix seemed to be putting more money aside White noiseGuillermo del Toro Pinocchioand Rian Johnson glass onionwhich suggests that Everyone silenceThe success is largely based on the film’s organic acclaim among Oscar voters. But it’s a strange film to garner such acclaim. It’s a depressing story that almost congratulates viewers on understanding its remarkably simple message of “war is a tragedy” – and surviving a soup of cinematic violence that has been renamed a serious cause.