‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ Producer Sees Parallels With Young Russian Conscripts Sent to Ukraine as ‘Cannon Fodder’

“It is a timeless story, that we now see played out live in Ukraine,” producer Malte Grunert tells TheWrap

All Quiet on the Western Front
"All Quiet on the Western Front" (Netflix)

When the “All Quiet on the Western Front” set about making the Oscar-nominated film, they had a strong conviction that the story of the dehumanizing horrors of war would be relevant in any decade.

But the story became more relevant than they ever imagined, as they wrapped up work on the film during Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine. Now the Netflix film is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, for its portrayal of an ugly chapter in human history at the end of World War 1 — when very young men were sacrificed in futility to a lost war.

More than a century later, modern parallels are glaring for “All Quiet” producer Malte Grunert, who sees history repeating itself as newly drafted young Russian soldiers are sent to their nation’s western front against Ukraine, told by their leaders it is a worthy and heroic cause for which to fight and die.

These young pawns in the Russian Army remind Grunert of his film’s portrayal of idealistic German youth sent to the front in France in World War 1, where most of them would die fighting for their leaders’ lust for conquest.

“When we set out to make the film, the escalation of the war in Ukraine wasn’t foreseeable – we really did not have that in mind,” Grunert told TheWrap. “What we felt was relevant is a story of a young man who falls prey to right-wing nationalist propaganda – believing that war is an adventure, and that they are on the right side. It is a timeless story, that we now see played out live in Ukraine.”

Grunert said that as they finished the project, he and his colleagues, like much of the world, felt sympathy for the Ukrainian people as their cities and homes were pounded by Russian missiles. But they also were struck by how the young German men and teenagers in his film compare to Russian soldiers sent to Ukraine.

“So possibly the perspective of our film is closest to the perspective of young Russian conscripts, who are now sent to the front in the Ukraine as cannon fodder,” Grunert said. “Hopefully it helps viewers to see soldiers, even from the aggressors, as victims of their own leaders.”

Based on the best selling German language novel of all time, “All Quiet” follows the main character, Paul Baumer (played by Felix Kammerer), who lies about his age so he can join the army and fight for his country.

At the start of the film, Baumer and his buddies finish their brief training and march joyfully on foot to the western front, after their commander tells them they will lead Germany all the way to Paris and victory. But mostly what these misled youths find is starvation, bitter cold, trenches filled with mud and puddles, and death from enemy bombs, bullets and bayonets.

One reason the modern film is so realistic is because the 1929 novel by author Erich Maria Remarque was based on his experience as a German soldier in World War 1. After selling one million copies in Germany, Remarque’s novel was banned and burned by the Nazis, and Remarque fled to Switzerland after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called him an enemy of the state.

Making a modern version was the passion of Lesley Paterson, a Scottish-born screenwriter living in San Diego. She and her husband spent most of their savings and mortgaged their house to stick with the project over several years, when they finally partnered with Grunert and director Edward Berger.

“I read the novel in high school, and it really stuck with me like a virus, the lesson of the betrayal of a useful generation, and their lives lost forever,” Paterson told TheWrap. “So years ago I kept thinking that this story really needs to be told now, for our younger generations, to help teach them about the tragedy of war.”

The German filmmakers loved Paterson’s script, except for one thing: they wanted to make the film in German, to differentiate from the 1930 and 1979 versions, and to bring the story home to German viewers. So back to the writing board for Paterson, to convert the script. Netflix viewers will barely notice this, as the English version comes off very smoothly with the aid of modern technology.

To match the poignancy of Paterson’s script, the film crew made sure that the action scenes captured the sickening brutality of war with modern filmmaking.

While the gore penetrates one’s senses, there is plenty of piercing subtlety. In the opening scenes, German soldiers pile up dead bodies, and pass off to the youngest soldiers the grisly task of recovering the boots and bullet-riddled uniforms from their fallen comrades.

These uniforms are then stitched and patched by women in a German workshop, to be repurposed to the new recruits. When Baumer receives his uniform after training, he sees a tag with a name on it – the name of the soldier who apparently died wearing the uniform. When Baumer points out the tag, the officer issuing uniforms simply rips off the tag and hands the uniform back to Baumer.

This creepy moment stuck with Grunert after filming was done.

“I have read articles about Russian conscripts being handed recycled uniforms as they get to the Ukraine. The cycle repeats,” Grunert said.

Grunert said he is humbled to be part of the legacy of Remarque’s work.

“These are big shoes for us to fill with our film. I don’t mean to compare our film to what some of our predecessors went through, but it is very moving to be even remotely connected to this history that “All Quiet” has,” Grunert told TheWrap. 

“We’ve managed to capture something that is obviously horrific, and we tried to come to what we can only imagine is an emotional truth of our main character, and how it could possibly feel to him,” Grunert said. “We are honored to be nominated for these awards, even though it is hard to feel joy about such tragic subject matter. We just hope that it helps people to feel the terrible reality of war.”

To portray this grim reality, the filmmakers had to really hustle to shoot the film in 52 days, in a drab abandoned airfield used in the second world war by the Soviet Union outside of Prague in the Czech Republic.

All this was done during the travel and social restrictions of the pandemic. The crew had to dig an elaborate maze of trenches, to represent the trench warfare of the World War 1 front. The trenches in the war criss-crossed for a total of 25,000 miles, equal to the circumference of planet Earth.

Paterson said she spent 10 months researching this trench warfare, so she could capture it realistically for the script.

“I was worried about whether we could capture it on film. But as soon as we saw the first film clips, it was like, every shot was a piece of art. Edward Berger is an amazing director, and the film crew did such an incredible job,” Paterson said.

Perhaps the best endorsement the film has is the reception from military veterans who have fought in mars from Korea to Afghanistan. Screening the movie for veterans, Grunert said he quickly saw that the film was something “these soldiers felt connected to.”

Paterson spends leisure time competing in triathlons, where she has met quite a few Navy SEALs in San Diego.

“Some of them have told me they have watched the movie 10 times now, and they really have embraced it. That really is your stamp of approval,” she said.

Just as importantly, she said people in their teens and 20s have told her how much they have been moved by the film.

“It really warms your cockles that these young people have connected to it and the message,” she said. “That really is the impact that you want your films to have.”