Oscars Surprise: What the Hell Is ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’?

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When the 2023 Oscar nominations were announced early this morning, there was one name that came up over and over that might have been familiar, but not necessarily recognizable: All Quiet on the Western Front.

Germany’s entry for Best International Film came out with a whopping nine nominations when all was said and done, including Best Picture. It collected so many nominations that it was tied for the second-most of any film, alongside The Banshees of Inisherin, and tailing just behind Everything Everywhere All at Once’s 11 nominations.

Besides the biggest prize, All Quiet on the Western Front came away with nods in the categories for Best International Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Music (Original Score), Best Cinematography, and a number of other technical categories. To put it plainly: it cleaned the hell up.

The film is an epic saga of the final days of WWI, told from the perspective of a young German soldier named Paul (Felix Kammerer), who enrolled in the Army to support his country. Years later, he’s faced with the grim, mortal realities of war and questioning his devotion to his country and its government. It’s based on the classic 1929 novel of the same name, which you might’ve read in your high school history class (or used as a pillow—the book is unforgettably dense, despite only being about 200 pages).

It also has a bit of Oscar history: The first film adaptation of the book won Best Picture at third-ever Academy Awards in 1931.

All Quiet on the Western Front’s number of nominations may not have come as a surprise to anyone who watched the film, but it still left several people flabbergasted over their morning coffee. “What is ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ like what is this movie, who is in it, and why is the first time I’m hearing about it today in the nominations?” one Twitter user questioned.

Others posited that Netflix—which distributed the film, and where it’s currently streaming—had a hand in their film sweeping the nominations. “[Let’s be real], Netflix bought all those ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ noms, right?” they asked. “No hype, no particular critical acclaim, surely no popular backing.”

But that’s not necessarily true. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Award, and 14 BAFTAs. To say it hasn’t been in the conversation speaks a little more about how we view international contenders weighed against American films.

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Still, it hasn’t had a major presence among the big categories at other awards shows over the last few weeks. It also wasn’t talked about for acting and directing categories like other international films, including Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, which garnered buzz and support for its lead actress and direction, but was ultimately shut out entirely by the Academy.

Considering that awards season often feels as endless as a war movie, it’s not exactly surprising that so many people are baffled by All Quiet’s sudden surge. Even if you barely follow the precursor ceremonies that lead up to the Oscars, there’s typically a general awareness of the movies that are strong contenders in the Best Picture race. Even if they are smaller (like Everything Everywhere All at Once started out as) or artsy (like TÁR), they at least are mentioned so frequently that most people know they’re a part of the major awards conversation—or, you know, even exist.

But it was really only after the huge BAFTA recognition that pundits started squeezing in a spot for All Quiet, which beat out other films that had been more saturated in the cultural dialogue like The Woman King or The Whale. Hell, I just found out All Quiet isn’t a miniseries three weeks ago.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Netflix</div>

Every year, there are a handful of films that appear among the lists of Oscar nominations that make people say, “Well, duh.” Despite the Academy’s best efforts to change its stripes, these movies seem to make it into the Oscar race like clockwork, eliciting a groan and eye roll from the general public.

A biopic about Winston Churchill in which its actor donned a fat suit? Duh. A saccharine, white savior drama? Major “Duh” movie. An expensive, flashy musical with big stars to draw in the holiday crowds and clinch a late leg up in the race? Three “Duh”s in the last decade alone.

War movies like All Quiet on the Western Front certainly fall into that category. Since 2010, the Academy has nominated War Horse, 1917, Dunkirk, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper for its biggest prize. Unsurprisingly, this year’s inclusion of All Quiet has left people wondering, “Why is there always a war movie?”

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Technically, All Quiet on the Western Front is different. It’s not told from the America-first perspective we’re so used to from films that often veer on propaganda like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty. It’s also not a pro-war film, like War Horse, which exalted the glory of loyal battle steeds—which was as funny as it sounded.

All Quiet on the Western Front is an exceedingly dour and hopeless story, one that digs deep into the traumatic effects of war as it’s happening. It questions the systems that have long been set in place by governments, and the expectation to put country before self. It’s not the stereotypical war film; All Quiet on the Western Front is firmly an anti-war epic.

But the biggest question of all is whether it can take its hefty number of nominations and pull a surprising sweep come Oscar night. An International Film category nominee crossing over into Best Picture had been historically rare, but as the Academy diversifies globally has become more common in recent years, culminating with Parasite’s landmark Best Picture win in 2020. But All Quiet on the Western Front collecting so many technical nominations as an international competitor is certainly surprising.

Maybe as a collective, it’ll bowl over voters—as Parasite did. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll bowl you over, too, changing your mind about what a war movie really can be.

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