During class on Tuesday as we were discussing Stephen King’s differentiation between horror and terror, one of my peers brought up Edward Berger’s 2022 film adaptation of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front as an example of a truly terrifying piece of media. As I’ve been haunted by the film ever since I first saw it in January, I felt I would expand on my classmate’s comment. His assessment was spot-on; Berger’s work exemplifies King’s definition of terror in a masterful fashion, thrusting audiences into the German trenches of the First World War.
The film’s protagonist Paul Bäumer excitedly enlists with his classmates in the German army near the start of the film, eager to protect his fatherland. However, unlike the audience, Paul has no conception of the tragedy he is about to face. Audiences know (or at least I hope they know!) that Paul is signing up to be on the losing side of history, a mere pawn in a political game that results in the deaths of millions of innocent lives. There’s nothing that you as an audience member can do to stop him; you just have to watch his story unfold as he marches into battle.
Berger does not shy away from depicting the graphic horrors of war. The film is not for the squeamish, but his use of gore is far from purposeless. The audience spends hours with Paul, watching his friends get blown to bits all around him, seeing Europe deteriorate, enduring freezing cold and torrential rain, enduring so much fire that his mere survival is a statistical anomaly. Paul and his army dedicate their lives to fighting for their country.
And it was all for nothing.
As a young soldier in the German army, Paul has absolutely no agency; none of the soldiers the audience meets do. Paul has no control over the course of his own life, the fate of his country, the fate of his friends, or the fate of his family. This lack of power, this beating of the spirit, this anguish, this terror is what King is referring to when he speaks about the difference between horror and terror. Don’t get me wrong; the film is horrifying. One cannot watch Berger’s film for thirty seconds without seeing a ghastly, gory image making the piece worthy of its R rating. But what sets Berger’s work apart from most works of horror cinema is its palpitating sense of futility. It is an agonizing film to endure, but if you’ve got the stomach for it, well worth the pain. I’ve seen a lot of movies in my short life, but none that depict war as accurately as All Quiet on the Western Front.