Netflix’s latest blockbuster is All Quiet on the Western Front, an oppressive, bleak anti-war film based on the award-winning 1928 novel of the same name.

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Following German teenage soldier Paul Bäumer, who lies about his age to join the war effort alongside his school mates, Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front digs deep into the horrors of World War One with the help of a desolate, anxiety-inducing score. Highlighting the cyclical nature of war but playing fast and loose with the source material (written by German veteran Erich Maria Remarque), this take on All Quiet on the Western Front largely does away with the questions about returning to civilian life post-war.

Instead, Netflix’s version focuses on how easy it was for the soldiers to lose their humanity, as well as touching on how the events of World War One led directly to World War Two by way of the sanctions placed on Germany via the Versailles Treaty and the hate that a generation was brought up with (seen best with the farmer’s son and that tragic encounter with Kat in the woods).

But with over-zealous generals talking about fighting for honour and complaining about day-old pastries while soldiers on both sides are fighting in the mud for their very lives, the differences between those in power and those doing the actual fighting isn’t exactly subtle. So just how factual is Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front?

The original novel was written by an actual German soldier who served with the Imperial German Army in World War One. He started the book by explaining that the story "is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped [its] shells, were destroyed by the war."

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Though it uses fictional characters and doesn’t go into detail about which battles are which, the novel was heavily inspired by Remarque’s time on the Western Front of World War One, focusing on the daily, traumatic grind rather than Hollywood-ready acts of heroism. The book went on to be banned in Germany after the Nazis rose to power in 1933 due to its anti-war themes.

Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front is based on a lot of real-world events, with the muddy conditions of the trenches, the ability of the Germans’ steel helmets to deflect flying shrapnel and the recycling of dead soldiers’ clothing and boots all accurate to what actually happened, as did executing deserting soldiers. Likewise, the tactics of going "over the top" and charging an enemy's trench as well as the "creeping barrage" manoeuvre did all happen during World War One, and mustard gas was a very real, very deadly threat. However, trench warfare had practically stopped by March 1918 following the Hundred Days Offensive which saw the Allies push the Axis powers back, liberating much of France and Belgium in the process.

One of the movie’s most impactful scenes is the sheer horror when a wave of tanks appears through the mist, followed by a series of Allied soldiers equipped with flamethrowers. Tanks were first used in 1916 during The Battle Of The Somme and then sporadically throughout the war, with Britain, France and Germany all developing their own versions with varying levels of success. Their effectiveness was often hindered by inexperienced crews or technical issues but when they worked, they could decimate an enemy's line with ease. Likewise, flamethrowers were first introduced by the Axis powers in 1915 and became an integral part of trench warfare, due to their ability to flush out soldiers from bunkers as well as the panic and terror they caused.

All Quiet on the Western Front
Daniel Brühl as Matthias Erzberger in All Quiet on the Western Front Reiner Bajo

As for the armistice, yes it was signed in a railway carriage after a lot of back and forth between the ever-shifting German government, with Daniel Brühl’s Matthias Erzberger based on the real-life person who headed up the German delegation. Sure, All Quiet on the Western Front makes it look far more straightforward than the actual events, but this is an anti-war movie, rather than an intricate, political thriller.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in a film driven by heartbreak is the final scene where, with a ceasefire signed and announced, a German officer decides on one last offensive before it becomes official. Time and time again, All Quiet on the Western Front highlights the futility of war, but these final losses feel extra tragic. However, these last battles actually happened. Both sides knew the armistice may only be a temporary pause in hostilities while surrender conditions were negotiated (it was extended three times) so officers wanted to be in the best possible position should fighting resume.

It’s reported that some Allied artillery units continued to fire on German targets, because soldiers didn’t want to haul away extra ammunition. Nearly 11,000 men were injured on the last day of fighting in World War One, with 2,738 deaths.

As the film reminds viewers in its closing moments, nearly 17 million people lost their lives during the first World War. Each soldier, regardless of side, was a "bug in a box" with their own lived experience and trauma. All Quiet on the Western Front is just one of those perspectives, used to portray the absolute horror of the conflict.

All Quiet on the Western Front is streaming now on Netflix. Sign up for Netflix from £6.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.

Check out our lists of the best series on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix – or see what else is on with our TV Guide.

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