My youthful reading of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 book, All Quiet on the Western Front, transformed my mental image of the past, destabilising my previous impressions of war, which had been largely absorbed from Hollywood spectacles. The novel follows the First World War experiences of some young German infantrymen, and it portrays war as long stretches of boredom and misery punctuated by eruptions of terror and horror. It was an exploration of humanity at the extremes: alongside the regret and alienation and brutal violence, life persisted in simple companionship and material comforts, in the roasting of a goose by the fire or in gossiping on the communal latrine, in moments of peace and hope and longing. The book derived its powerful realism from Remarque’s own wartime experiences; it was a contemporary testament that helped popularise the literary genre of veterans’ own perspectives on war.
Edward Berger’s widely praised 2022 adaptation lacks that realism. The film is beautifully shot and scored, rich in detail, and contains some undeniably moving moments. It has received numerous awards and nominations, including the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. And yet it is a deeply flawed literary adaptation and work of historical imagination, which has made drastic and unnecessary changes to its source material, transforming the book’s nuances into a crudely frenetic and exaggerated piece of surrealism. Admittedly, part of the film’s loss of the authenticity is due to the very nature of things: it is, after all, no longer a work of testamentary experience but an attempt to reconstruct a disappeared time and a distant generation. It has become historical fiction, replete with all that genre’s dreamlike ability to evoke other times along with its perilous relationship to the truth. Historical fiction is a dialogue between past and present that necessarily reveals as much about our own society as it does about the past. This dialogue must be genuine if it is to work, but the genre is increasingly struggling to evoke a plausible past even as it reaches unprecedented heights of popularity.
Historical fiction—a genre defined by its desire to summon up past conditions, events, or people—first came to prominence in the early 19th century with the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It was twin-birthed to a new form of historical consciousness, or “historicism,” which held that human nature fundamentally changes over time, thereby opening a gulf between historical eras and our own that required an effort of imaginative reconstruction to bridge. Shakespeare’s Romans were Englishmen in togas whereas Victor Hugo’s medieval ruffians were consciously evoked in their particularity. The genre’s fortunes have since fluctuated over the years, even if—as can be seen in early classics like Quo Vadis? (1913) and Birth of a Nation (1915)—cinema has, from the beginning, been irresistibly drawn towards it.
Especially in the last few decades, the genre has begun to be taken more seriously by artists and critics, resulting in unending streams of Oscar bait and documentaries, works by major novelists like Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Hilary Mantel, and wildly successful television shows like Bridgerton and its innumerable successors. The genre’s newfound popularity is perhaps a response to a general feeling of cultural malaise—disillusion with the present or future and with bourgeois compromises—that has turned audiences towards the past for consolation. The prominence of popular history more generally has also been driven by the rise of progressive movements challenging historical legacies of oppression and silence and by new forms emerging from changing technologies, databases, video games, social media and their ilk.
Despite these new forms, it is historical film, with its power to fashion comprehensive illusions peopled by characters who seem to live and breathe, that still dominates our image of the past. Its central importance to our historical understanding raises important questions about its moral and intellectual responsibility. That responsibility, of course, makes professional historians especially uneasy. They complain about its distortions, simplifications, and vulnerability to the demands of commerce and entertainment. Historians, by virtue of their training and professionalisation, claim unique authority to police historical representations. But they have abdicated, rather than been supplanted from, the public role they played in previous generations. They have become increasingly detached from everyday desires and relevancies by the demands of an overly specialised modern academia and its fashionable ideologies. And when historians do engage with historical fiction, they have an unfortunate tendency towards pedantry or artistic gaucheness. They often remind me of the mathematician Charles Babbage’s infamous 1840s letter to the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson:
In your otherwise beautiful poem “The Vision of Sin” there is a verse which reads – “Every moment dies a man, Every moment one is born.” It must be manifest that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death.
I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read – “Every moment dies a man, Every moment 1 1/16 is born.”
The actual figure is so long I cannot get it onto a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.
I am, Sir, yours, etc.,
At the other extreme, some artists seem to treat history as an unproblematic store of material to be used or changed for whatever purpose they please. Michael Hirst, the writer of The Tudors and Vikings, has responded to claims of historical inaccuracy by observing that his “first duty is to write a show that’s entertaining. I wasn’t commissioned by Showtime to write a historical documentary.” Some philosophers have expressed similar confusion at why people should expect accuracy in fiction when fiction is necessarily make-believe. Many people glibly argue that those who want to know “what really happened” in a period should “look it up” rather than rely on the dubious claims of entertainments. In reality, however, this is unlikely to happen and such responses ignore how even bad fiction insidiously imprints itself on our imagination.
Neither one of these extreme positions on fact and fiction is helpful. Historical fiction is indeed a form of fiction that requires a degree of freedom from the tyranny of fact, but fiction itself is not mere make-believe. The merits of a fictional work are not determined primarily by how entertaining it is but by how true and beautiful it is. Despite some contemporary cavils, art remains a reflection of the truth, and the greatest works of art are great insofar as they offer insight into the nature of things and the human condition. This is how fiction is able to expand the horizon of our sympathies and imagination. Aristotle argued that poetry, or what we would refer to as literature, deals with universals and is therefore closer to wisdom than history, which is confined to particulars. The incompleteness of all our knowledge allows for fictional invention that proposes hypotheses or suspends certain facts about the world in order to plumb the depths of human experience. Every work of fiction establishes a tacit contract with us over its particular tests of truth. Different genres, and indeed nonfiction itself, draw the boundaries of their truths in different ways, but fiction that abandons any basis in truth would be incomprehensible. Even the most fantastical plots must adhere to the basic laws of logic, character, and ethics if they wish to maintain our interest and our willing suspension of disbelief.
But historical fiction has a particular responsibility towards the truth, not only because it has a moral obligation to respect the dignity and autonomy of the real people or societies that it explores but also because it claims a truth-like status for itself. It compels us by the thought that something like this could once have happened, that this was an actual way of life. It is this very compulsion that distinguishes it from a genre like fantasy, where the attraction lies more in an escapist imagining of the impossible, whether for wish-fulfilment or nightmare catharsis. But it is not entirely clear what this responsibility towards the truth entails nor what is even meant by historical authenticity in a work of art.
The most obvious manifestation of authenticity, the one that strikes us most immediately, is at the level of visual and mundane detail. As David Harlan has written, a novelist or filmmaker must “create historical worlds that are so richly furnished and completely realized that their readers can actually inhabit them, often for days at a time. To create such worlds they put down layer after layer of tiny, now almost forgotten details.” They must portray not just the look of things as they currently hang in museums, but as they looked when used in a particular time and place. They need to convey the look and feel of an era down even to the way people spoke and gestured. The image’s hunger for plenitude is always perilous to maintaining historical authenticity. Historical films are necessarily at once too detailed and not detailed enough, inevitably forced to compress, condense, and simplify, while forced to fill in the gaps, to show precise details that cannot possibly be known from research.
The film theorist Siegfried Kracauer argued that such films are always subject to an “irrevocable staginess” because “the historical past must be staged in terms of costumes and settings completely estranged from present-day life.” But perhaps worse than staginess, as the historian Natalie Zemon Davis has pointed out, is the inertia of an “overdone period,” which overpopulates the world with temporal significance and ignores “the mixture of goods, clothes, and buildings found in documents from the past: the old and the hand-me-down along with the new, the archaic with the fashionable, the inherited with the purchased.” Slavish pursuit of the look of the “time” can, paradoxically, look wrong. Often, the most dangerous moment for verisimilitude in modern productions is the passing glimpse of an interior or street—a glimpse meant to suggest a continuous world can instead tear the illusion apart. The glimpsed space often tends towards the too regular, uniform, and polished to look plausibly lived in, to be anything more than an artificial reconstruction. The new All Quiet falls into this trap: its scenes overflow with too much interest, too much of the historical and of the extreme. If there is a hospital, there must be a doctor sawing off a limb. If there is a trench, bodies must be strewn everywhere.
This problem can be partly addressed by a sparer approach to the past, which aims for representativeness rather than comprehensiveness and which tries to capture the messy texture of actual life. The 1994 adaptation of Little Women spent far less time on historical detail than the 2019 version but felt more convincing as a portrait of the time. An authentic historical portrayal does not ultimately depend on its level of detail or fidelity to every fact but rather on an ability to capture a true impression of the time, of its “types” of character and action, of its events and their workings. As the director Carl Dreyer complained:
[T]he greatest care was exercised to make each of the film’s smallest details believable. … All of it was so real and so correct and so believable, and yet one did not believe it. … A devil whispered in one’s ear: “Is it not all technique?” It was soul that was lacking!
This “soul” of the period can only emerge from a genuine attempt to understand the period on its own terms—its worldview, beliefs, and conditions. This is a moral requirement as much as it is an artistic one—past people deserve to be approached with the compassion, respect, and justice that we would grant our contemporaries. But it is difficult for film to achieve this because, as a visual medium, it is forced to reside on the surface of things. It necessarily lacks the interiority of literature, even if it can partly compensate for this with dialogue or narration.
The problem goes deeper than the limitations of the image. In any attempt to understand the other, one needs somehow to maintain a precarious balance between the recognition of their universal humanity and of their particularity. Historical fiction thrives in the seams of this tension. Ironically, it is precisely its weakness—a tendency, in the words of historian Robert Rosenstone, to “make the past accessible by collapsing it into the present”—that can grant it greater historical insight than many scholarly works which assume an absolute break between past and present. The attempt to take the pastness of the past too seriously destroys our ability to understand it, for pure difference could not even be imagined. People in every time and place share a basic human nature, and fiction can be a powerful tool of the imagination to fill in the gaps and silences of the historical record.
At the same time, a hasty imagination undisciplined by sources becomes just a projection of ourselves. Davis has cautioned that, “Although there is an inevitable dialogue between the past and the present, the historian wants first and foremost to let the past be the past, strange before it is familiar, particular before it is universal.” Or as the novelist Mary Renault put it, “People in the past were not just like us. To pretend so is an evasion and a betrayal, turning our back on them so as to be easy among familiar things.” This is the great failure of much recent historical fiction: the unwillingness or inability to grant legitimacy to past peoples’ voices and alternate ways of life. Megan O’Grady has discussed how a new wave of writers such as Colson Whitehead and George Saunders have focused their attention on “the way history shapes, wounds and implicates us.” This focus on past injustice can be salutary but, as I have discussed elsewhere, it tends to view the past across an unbridgeable gulf of moral progress. On our side lie full humanity and the indisputable truths and values of things like tolerance, secularism, scepticism, or equality. On the other side stalk derangement and incoherence, societies defined by oppression and power and fundamentally illegitimate ways of life.
This view of history can be found in many contemporary films and television shows that have entirely surrendered the difficult responsibility of understanding in their rush to condemn or supplant. They avoid any confrontation with the strange in their complacent anachronisms of dress, behaviour, and thought. This can be seen, for instance, in historical fantasies like Bridgerton (2020), Mary Queen of Scots (2018), or Anne Boleyn (2021) with their race-blind casting and imposition of contemporary sexual and social mores on past societies. Other films, like the Imitation Game (2014)—with its treatment of Alan Turing’s sexuality—or Selma (2014)—with its treatment of Lyndon Johnson’s relationship to the Civil Rights movement—drastically distort the motivations and actions of key players in the name of their political themes.
This is the problem with the 2022 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. It privileges style and antiwar messaging over a genuine attempt to understand the past and over the integrity of its original source material. A respectful adaptation attempts to protect the essence of a work, assuming that the work embodies something fundamental and precious that needs to be carefully preserved in the process of translation to a foreign medium. If it is not worth this preservation, it is not worth adapting. As many German critics have complained, Berger’s All Quiet is so cavalier with the book that it threatens to transform it into an entirely different genre. Remarque structured his novel around the narration of Paul Baümer in order to maximise the intimacy of his exploration of soldiers’ experiences on the front. Edward Berger dwells instead on the surface of the film, apparently allergic to any sustained dialogue that might convincingly construct character and motivation. Radically rearranging the book’s chronology, he has cut large sections that dealt with the characters’ backgrounds, training, and domestic lives, and indeed most of the moments of humanity, tenderness, or stillness. He is so intent on conveying the horrors of war that the soldiers, who should be the focus of our empathy, are reduced to mere sketches.
The film thereby becomes an over-stylised surrealism and absurdism masquerading as unflinching “realism.” The filmmakers have abandoned all subtlety and nuance in pursuit of their message. The irony of the title, after all, might have been lost on the viewer if the main characters had died towards the end of the war, so Baümer in the film must perish in its final seconds. The conditions of the First World War were some of the most terrible in all of human history and yet the filmmakers still feel the need to exaggerate them. The film seems to suffer from an attraction to violence for its own sake, part of a contemporary movement which seems to assume that serious art must be grim, hyperviolent, and nihilistic. The relentlessly violent hellscape ultimately subverts its own message. The emotional climax of the book, for instance, occurs when Paul is trapped in a shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed, and this first violent encounter with the enemy at close quarters forces him to come to terms with the other man’s humanity and with the terrible stupidity of war. In Berger’s film, Paul has already brutally killed hundreds of men by this stage and the scene loses its power.
Historical films generally struggle to adequately embrace the complex overdetermination of historical events. While they can powerfully represent history as an integrated process of individuals, conditions, and events, they are forced by the demands of drama to wrestle the multiplicity of the past into the present tense of a single narrative based around individuals. Historical films therefore tend to be unsuited to analysis. As Rosenstone has argued, they “cannot make general statements about revolution or progress. Instead, film must summarize, synthesize, generalize, symbolize—in images.” Yet, even given these inherent limitations, All Quiet particularly struggles to convey a realistic sense of history in motion. The film is not content with the book’s condemnation of the failures of authority, and so it makes those leaders deranged. Its most ridiculous scene involves a demented ultranationalist general, invented expressly for the film, forcing the soldiers into a deeply implausible attack on enemy lines just minutes before the armistice comes into effect. It is telling of the film’s general lack of nuance that Berger felt the need to create an entirely new plotline about high-level peace negotiations, presumably because he was worried that the mundane experiences of soldiers would not adequately convey the meaninglessness of war by themselves.
The film’s wholesale condemnation of human society to absurdity is a form of sentimentality and complacency, and it demonstrates an unwillingness to face the irreducible complexity of human affairs. This is a confusion of the extreme with the sophisticated. Its grotesque vision of humanity—seen, for instance, in Kat’s death at the hands of a malevolent civilian child—conflicts with the book’s life-affirming humanism. It does not stand up well against either the previous adaptations of the book (especially the classic 1930 version), nor to other classic films of war such as Platoon (1986), Gallipoli (1981), Apocalypse Now (1979), or Saving Private Ryan (1998). Schopenhauer claimed that great tragedies explore how “characters of ordinary morality, under circumstances such as often occur, are so situated with regard to each other that their position compels them knowingly and with their eyes open to do each other the greatest injury without any of them being entirely in the wrong.” Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), a film about tensions in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in the Pacific, is a particularly strong example of a work that approaches this ideal, managing to portray the moral complexity of a brutal time while preserving the humanity of both sides. All Quiet is not.
Any particular failures of understanding in historical fictions like All Quiet would be more forgivable if they did not, in the words of David Herlihy, make “history seem too easy and our knowledge of the past appear too certain.” The clarity of their illusions tends to obscure how our reconstruction of the past is always subject to difficulties and disputes and, at a deeper level, how reality necessarily resists our accounts of it. It is true, however, that sophisticated filmmakers and writers can at least recognise the partiality of their perspectives in their works. This is what Natalie Zemon Davis tried to do with The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), even if she was not satisfied with the results. “Good art accepts and celebrates and mediates upon the defeat of the discursive intellect by the world,” Iris Murdoch claimed. “Bad art misrepresents the world so as to pretend there is no defeat.”
Historical fiction can, ultimately, be a vehicle for genuine historical thinking and knowledge, so long as we do not expect the same things of it as we do of traditional historiography. The value of historical representations ultimately depends on whether or not they can open up our understanding of the wholeness of life. Historical fiction at its best can be an art that subverts our complacencies, that teaches us that terrible suffering has occurred and will continue to occur, but that truth and beauty and goodness are also available in all times and places. At its rarest heights, it can be an art that makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar in the hope that we may reach beyond ourselves to a fuller intimation of being.