‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ Producer on Its Nine Oscar Noms: “The Reaction to the Film, at This Scale, Did Surprise Me”

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ Producer on Its Nine Oscar Noms: “The Reaction to the Film, at This Scale, Did Surprise Me”
Mar 2023

Netflix's German-language anti-war epic creeped into Oscar contention to land nine nominations, including best picture and international feature -- and producer Malte Grunert hopes its success will change viewers' perspectives on the horrors of combat.

Edward Berger's All Quiet on the Western Front had an unexpected journey to becoming an Oscar frontrunner. The Netflix war drama had a soft launch in Toronto last year but has been building momentum ever since. Proving to be equally popular with critics and industry professionals -- All Quiet swept this year's BAFTAs, winning seven awards, including best film, best director and most of the technical honors -- the movie is suddenly a major player at the Academy Awards, not just as a best international feature nominee, but in all nine categories in which it's nominated, including best picture.

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No one has been more surprised by the film's global success than producer Malte Grunert. Grunert has some Oscar experience (he was a co-producer on 2015 best international feature nominee Land of Mine) but never expected that the first German adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's classic anti-war novel, about the trials of an ordinary soldier in the trenches of World War I, would have such resonance with a global audience.

Were you surprised at how international audiences, and the Academy, have responded to All Quiet on the Western Front?

The reaction and the resonance to the film, at this scale, did surprise me, yes. Obviously, there is a very much unwanted and sort of horrible relevance to the story because of the war in Ukraine. If you look at images from the Ukrainian front and compare that to historic photographs from the Western front, the similarity is harrowing. That gives the film a timely relevance we couldn't have foreseen, nor expected, nor wanted.

The reason we felt the film was relevant to make now was it is the story of five boys who fall prey to nationalistic propaganda and lies and enter a war thinking it'll be an adventure. It's a rhetoric and a tone that has entered the political discourse again, this sort of right-wing propaganda. The film isn't just a reminder of the real horrors of war; [it] can also, like with Remarque's novel, remind us what happens if we give in to this propaganda and don't, as a society, resist it.

What is it about Remarque's novel, which is almost 100 years old, that gives it such staying power?

Remarque's literary language is very, very contemporary. If you read it today, it doesn't feel 100 years old. Its language doesn't feel dated at all. The other thing is Remarque's very distinct perspective on war. Most war films are U.S. or British, and those nations have a completely different perspective on war. So, they were roped into two world wars, they defended themselves, and they were victorious. They freed Europe from Nazi terror after the second world war. This perspective allows their war stories to be heroes' stories, heroes' journeys. The German perspective can only be a different one. The German perspective is one of guilt and shame and responsibility, hopefully. That version is different to most war stories that we see.

Is it a bit ironic that at the Oscars, one of your big competitors is Top Gun: Maverick, which is a celebration of military might?

There's a completely different perspective on war with Top Gun: Maverick, obviously. But it's a fantastically well-made film with a huge star in the main role, and it's a very different story that they're telling. [Maverick is] a story a German filmmaker, I think, would have trouble telling. It's not surprising that it's a completely different perspective. But I wouldn't say it's ironic that we're both nominated. It's more an expression of these two different points of view.

Do you think the Oscars have become more open to different, and more international, points of view? A few years ago, the idea of a non-English-language film getting nine nominations would have been inconceivable.

There certainly seems to be a change in terms of audience resonance to films that are not in the English language: Parasite winning best picture as a Korean film, or The Artist, arguably a French film, though there's no dialogue. There seems to be a change in the audience's reception, and I think that is not just due to theatrical films, but mostly because of series and streamers. The enormous success of [Netflix's] Narcos, Money Heist or Dark has brought with it an audience with a willingness to see films in the original language, to read subtitles. That certainly is different to what it was 20 years ago.

How do you make an anti-war film with that epic scope of war and battles without romanticizing it, or making it into an adventure movie?

The first decision we took was to stay true to Remarque's novel and the perspective that the novel has. This is the story of an ordinary soldier's experience of war. We thought a lot about the depiction of violence. How much do we want? Edward Berger, the DP, James Friend, and I believed that in order to be a film about war, there needs to be a certain level of violence; otherwise, it just wouldn't feel sincere. At the same time, we never wanted the violence to be exploitative. We wanted the violence to be at a level where it would allow an audience of 15- or 16-year-olds to go and see the film. It was also very important to show violence that is identical whether it happens to friend or foe. Which is the same in Remarque's novel: The death of an enemy is never a good thing. The death of an enemy is not less appalling than the death of a friend.

This book was adapted before, of course; director Lewis Milestone's classic won the Oscar for best picture in 1930. What do you think your film does differently?

The 1930 film is iconic [and] part of film history. It's a beautifully made film and will forever be in the pantheon of great films, not just great war films. Every time you take a piece of literature and adapt it to the screen, you always need to make changes. We [added] a whole new story strain that isn't in the novel, about the armistice negotiations. It's a very valuable addition because it puts things into context. Obviously when Remarque wrote the novel, and when Lewis Milestone directed the first film adaptation, they didn't have a sense of what was yet to come. So, for us to establish this connection between the two world wars, explaining that the end of World War I was really the beginning of the next horror, felt a worthwhile change and addition.

You obviously made All Quiet before the start of the war in Ukraine, but do you think your film can contribute to the discussion around the war?

Probably the closest position that the film takes is to the position of the poor young Russian conscripts who believe the propaganda they hear at home and are being sent to Ukraine thinking that they're entering a just war. I've read articles about them being handed pre-used uniforms upon their arrival in Ukraine, sort of how we show in our film. But I would never dare to say our film is intended or capable of actually influencing the discussion or the decisions about how we should deal with the war in Ukraine.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.