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How a German war film disarmed Oscar voters despite woes at home

When “All Quiet on the Western Front” first premiered back in September, there was little to suggest it was about to wage an all-out campaign for Oscar votes.

The German-language World War I film comes from Netflix, which had a roster of far more expensive “prestige” movies primed for Academy Award pushes, from Oscar-winning director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Bardo” to the star-studded “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”

But while those have largely fallen by the wayside, with one nomination each, “All Quiet” has emerged from the crowded trenches of awards season hopefuls as an Oscars frontrunner, with nine nods, including for much-coveted best picture honors.

“It really feels like a wave of joy and luck that has come over us,” director Edward Berger told AFP, days before his film won seven prizes at Britain’s BAFTAs, including best film.

“We’re very grateful for that… it’s a German war movie!” 

Indeed, Berger’s film is the third screen adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal novel about naive young German soldiers confronted with the horrors of war — but the first shot in the author’s native language.

Had he been asked, the director “would have immediately said no” to making another English-language version.

Luckily, the decision to flip the script was helped by Netflix’s wildly successful expansion into new global markets with recent subtitled hits such as South Korean series “Squid Game” and Oscar-winning film “Roma.”

The movie’s eventual $20 million price tag was comparatively small change for the streaming giant, but a huge sum in the German film industry.

“We wouldn’t have gotten the type of budget that you need to make this film five years ago,” said Berger.

The film’s best picture Oscar nomination is the first for any German-language movie.

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Ironically, the film has been far better received outside of the German-speaking world than it has at home, where many reviewers savaged it.

In particular, critics slammed Berger’s decision to depart from Remarque’s text, which — with 50 million copies sold worldwide, and the legacy of being banned by the Nazis — holds hallowed status in Germany today.

Unlike the novel, the film portrays tense armistice peace talks with French generals. It also omits a section in which one of its war-hardened heroes visits home but cannot readjust to civilian life. 

“I don’t follow it very closely… that’s part of the journalist’s job — to observe, criticize,” shrugged Berger.

“I felt licensed to make those changes” because “why make it the same?” he added.

To encapsulate the “physical difference” between the film’s reception at home and overseas, Berger pointed to one especially harrowing scene towards the end of the movie.

A key character is fatally bayoneted through the back — a moment which Berger intended to be heartbreaking and brutal, but not necessarily unexpected, given the novel’s fame and the war’s unfathomable death…

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