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Remarque in trenches near Kherson. Impressions from the soldier and film producer, Volodymyr Yatsenko, on the nature of fear in warfare, rebuilding a nation, and life after victory

Sunday, 13 November 2022, 04:30

The scene is a room with a huge table and two small men on either side.

This is not a protocol photo of a Kremlin dictator with another dove of peace that flew in from the West. This is a scene from the new adaptation of the famous novel by Erich Maria Remarque.

The filming of "All quiet on the Western Front" began [far] before the long "Putin's table" [It is reported that his table is 6 meters (20 feet) long] became a meme. And on 28 October 2022, the film by the German director Edward Berger appeared on Netflix.


The most interesting thing in this film depicting the raw brutality that typified the First World War is its projection for today. Remarque’s work read to tatters, has transformed into a mirror in which everyone perceives something differently.

With it, Germans are given yet another opportunity to talk about their historical trauma and feelings of guilt.

For the Russians - it’s all about "the savagery of the Kaiser’s military machine and the Western Front, a view in which nothing has changed over the past hundred years." 

For Ukrainians - it’s about "good Russians", among whom Remarque suddenly found himself.

"Remarque is a good Russian who survived the war along with the ideas portrayed by his characters: "We were deceived, we wanted to take Paris in two or three weeks, but we were f**ed up by evil generals", ardent critics of the film on social media were outraged.

Weird projections become clearer if you watch the film, not from Berlin or Los Angeles, but from Kyiv, Kherson, or Mykolaiv, all of which are suffering from the rocket terror of Russian "anti-fascists".

And it’s even better [to watch this film] if you want the "total immersion effect" from somewhere close to the front line; as Volodymyr Yatsenko, a soldier of the Ukrainian Armed Forces did at our request. Volodymyr is also a producer of the films "Wild Fields", "Home", "Atlantis", "Luxembourg, Luxembourg", and "Me and Felix".

"I know that everyone is tired. We do not know what is ahead. None of us have plans for the future and everything we did before the war is irrelevant today.

But this rainstorm will continue for a long time; months, maybe years, and we have no other choice but to win," Yatsenko reflected at the beginning of the hot summer of 2022.

What do we know about the war that Remarque's characters did not?

How does the world look different on the monitor of a missile system operator from the world seen through the eyepiece of a movie camera?

Why should we not hurry with a pathetic film epic about this war?

Volodymyr Yatsenko told Ukrainska Pravda about this.

Volodymyr Yatsenko: "Most of the actors left from the movie party for the Armed Forces of Ukraine,  and the screenwriters seemed to follow in second place. After the war, "trench" literature will be very interesting because these people are not only witnesses but also active participants in these events."

Large-scale construction of checkpoints, hedgehog Ukraine

and the 8-year-long road to the Military Commissariat

You can only despair as long as things are not completely bad.

Erich Maria Remarque, "All quiet on the Western Front"

On 23 February, at 23:00, we left for Western Ukraine. I wanted to take my family to a safer place. I spent a couple of days settling everyone in and then decided to return to Kyiv.

I drove from west to east and was watching during that day how the country would act like a hedgehog. Guys in Adidas suits built fortifications using concrete blocks in villages, small towns, and big cities. 

As I reached Khmelnytskyi it was already evening, and I realised that it would be difficult to get to Kyiv by car. I simply left it somewhere, went to the railroad station and purchased a train ticket. Only seven fellow passengers were travelling with me on the entire train. We were fired upon a couple of times, we stopped, ran for cover in the dark at unlit stations.

When I returned, Kyiv impressed me. I had never seen it like that. It was a city in which some very ancient predatory beast had awakened. It felt like anything but doom - that, you know, "we poor people, something terrible will be done to us again". There was a feeling that the remaining people would not go anywhere and never surrender their city.

I began to find out which of my friends and acquaintances remained in the city. We joined together, and for a while, lived as a group at my house.

In March, we started travelling and filming with friends. We arrived in Irpin on the day the Russians arrived from Bucha. Irpin was completely empty, extinct. We met an 11-year-old boy named Mark. He made Molotov cocktails with an absolutely impenetrable face. We said, "Mark, friend, what are you doing here?" He looked at us like we were crazy and said: "Don't you see? Molotov cocktails." - "And where are your parents?" - "I don't know, somewhere, but now I don’t care about it." And this against the background of silence and completely empty streets. Imagine this?

I was amazed to see how people instantly adapt to war. We filmed in Romanivka for several days, when there was an evacuation through a blown-up bridge. You see how ordinary people with children, dogs, with some belongings, hear the whistling of aerial mines and duck down to the ground, although no one taught them this. And they are not afraid of the bodies of those killed nearby. A year before the war, if we would see a person with severed limbs on the street, it would have been a shock for years. The psyche gets habituated to it, otherwise life would be intolerable.  

And then the five of us joined with friends and went to the Military Commissariat, without coercion, somehow completely natural.

When the war started in 2014, as a person who was on the Maidan, I understood that it was my war and I had to be there. But I had a small child at that time - an excellent argument in conversations with myself questioning why I am in Kyiv and not in Donbas.

This time it would seem objectively even more difficult than eight years ago. Everything was shouting "no". My wife was pregnant at the time, and now we have a son. But in March 2022, I realised that I couldn’t help but join [the army]. If I don't do this, I would lose all self-respect.

In a few years that son, who is now one and a half months old, will ask, "Dad, what were you doing at this time?" What would I say? "Hiding in France? Were you working? Did you shoot a movie?" And that was probably the main driving force for me.

Of course, I dislike that many of the men I know have fled abroad. I don't even know how I will be able to communicate with them after the war. How the society will react to them in general? - will it tolerate and turn a blind eye to them or not?

These are two different approaches. The first is that life is a matter of individual choice and that everyone decides for himself how to live it. The second is that there are situations when we all need to feel that we are a part of something that is greater than each of us.

Even in official communication we are stuck somewhere in the middle between these concepts, it seems to me. It is not clearly articulated. We don't say: "The motherland is in danger! Everyone join the army!" Instead we respond to slogans like "we believe in the Armed Forces", "the Armed Forces will save us" and "the Armed Forces are tops".

The fear that is always with you and

the gamification of war

- Was it very scary there, Paul?

What should I say to you, mother? You will never understand this, you will never understand. You don't need to understand...

I shake my head and say:

- No, mom, not really. There are many of us; and it's somehow easier when you are in a group.

Erich Maria Remarque, "All quiet on the Western Front"

For me,  a small DJI drone, the so-called "Mavik" is a symbol of this war. It has fundamentally changed everything.

Apparently, this is the first war using drones and artillery on such a scale. On the front, you constantly either hiding and running from enemy drones, or launching your own. Everyone is constantly watching and listening to what is happening in the air. It changed so much; how soldiers mask their positions and try not to gather in large numbers in one place.

And the second symbol of war - if we talk about technological things - NLAW and Javelin. Not that they equaled the infantry with motorised forces, but at least gave them some chance not to give their lives for nothing.

At the beginning of the war, we went to visit friends who were standing near the Lavina Mall in Kyiv. There was a large consolidated group of military and Territorial Defence Forces. They were preparing for defence - a Russian column of equipment was coming. And NLAW was brought to their position. Of course, no one knew how to use them. Everyone started looking for instructions on the Internet.

The fighters were confident, because 20 "NLAWs" is a lot, it is possible to bring down a large amount of enemy equipment and stop the column with them. But when they started to insert the batteries, it turned out that 18 out of 20 did not work - discharged in the cold. It was surprising to see how previously self-confident people discovered that they had not 20, but 2 "NLAWs". It instantly changed the mood.

Fortunately, this large column of Russians did not reach them - it was just luck. The 72nd brigade completely destroyed it...

Volodymyr Yatsenko: "Now the Armed Forces have many specialists from non-military fields, all these mid-level managers contribute something of their own to tactics and approaches."

When you work with ATMs (anti-tank missile system - Ukrainska Pravda) and you see on the monitor that a missile fired by you and your brothers in arms strikes an armoured vehicle filled with Russians and is downed, you don't realise that it was you who did it. Apparently, a certain gamification is such a strong and protective mechanism of the psyche. You think that you can destroy the enemy, but you can’t be killed in this game, although you understand in your head that this is not so.

Hearing is the most important of all senses in war, and artillery is its main soundtrack. You are constantly listening  to where it "departed" and where it "arrived". That's what you hear constantly when you get close to the front line. However, even when you are in Kyiv, and hear similar sounds, you automatically try to understand whether it is a threat to you or not.

During these past months, I have learned to live with my fear. Someone very accurately said: there are two mental states in warfare - either you control your fear, or fear controls you. But fear is always present.

"Boots" with "jackets", the people

who woke up and frustrated Europeans

The most important thing was that a strong and effective sense of unity was awakened in us, which later, at the front, grew into the best thing that the war gave us - comraderie!

Erich Maria Remarque, "All quiet on the Western Front"

This is, of course, subjective, but I see an interesting trend in the army. Those who are currently in the Armed Forces are either very young people - up to 22, or 40+. I don't know where all those who are between are. Whether they got stuck in the Lviv cauldron or somewhere else, but this is such a strange trend.

Young guys are very eager, they want to fight, they do not say "I", but rather "we" - "we are the first", "we want", "we will". And this is perhaps "becoming" for them.

Another thing, about all those men 40+, to which group I belong. We understand that we have managed to do something in life, many have families, children, and this adds prudence and balance.

In general, something fantastic is happening in the army now. Until now, civilians sometimes would call military "boots", and military civilians - "jackets". When "boots" together with "jackets" is very interesting. Actually, we can see how a nation is being stitched together right before our eyes, because a jacket with boots is already an almost perfect person.

A very important thing happened with the beginning of the big war. Ukrainians got rid of their victim complex barely for the first time in their history.

We have always been an object with which everyone did something - mostly bad. They would starve, shoot, or torture us. And here, perhaps for the first time [in centuries], we said, "STOP!". Never again will we allow ourselves to be treated like this. These are tectonic shifts that we are only now beginning to realise. Perhaps something similar happened to those Jews who survived the Holocaust.

Now we are not an enslaved people. We are people who have been awakened. By the way, this is one of the factors why the old cautious Europe is wary of the metamorphoses that are happening to us. We are very adaptable, quick thinking, very active and not everyone likes that.

The irony of fate: as it turned out, out of all Europeans today, only Ukrainians are capable of dying for European values.

During these months I talked a lot with Europeans. If Poles or Czechs fully support us, at least my acquaintances, then, for example, many Germans and French are, let's say, very moderate. They are frustrated that the separate paradise on earth they built for themselves turned out to be a house of cards. It frustrates some because of Ukraine, which has invented something for itself and does not want to give up. Some understand that this is not only about Ukraine, but also about themselves.

A perfect film about "good Russians" 

We are fugitives. We run away from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, just beginning to love life and the world, and we had to shoot them. The first shell hit our heart. We are cut off from real activity, from aspirations, from progress. We no longer believe in them: we believe in war.

Erich Maria Remarque, "All quiet on the Western Front"

The refrain of Remarque's book and the film "All quiet on the Western Front" is that war is inherently unjust, war is like evil fate. Therefore, there is no need to worry, because resistance has no meaning, politicians and generals will betray us anyway.

Before this war, many Ukrainians believed the same. Why are these fools first on the Maidan, then in the Anti-Terrorist Operation. Why do it at all, if everything is clear. Everything is dust and decay. All the same, we will be disgraced by Americans, Europeans, and we will have to return to the slave stall called "one nation" [Russian narrative about Russians and Ukrainians being one nation].

It is interesting that the Russians are themselves enslaved in their own empire, and feel the same way. This is a very interesting thing. I read somewhere that Russia is the only empire in which the native nation lived more poorly than the nations enslaved by it.

If I had watched this movie a year ago, it would still have been a poorly made movie for me. But it is not about its artistic charms or shortcomings.

I find it strange that there is no Mosfilm logo at the beginning, because I see it as a film that the Russians should have actually made.

It is important to understand that to Remarque [at the time of] "All quiet on the Western Front", Germany was still an empire and German soldiers were people who represented this empire;  just as Russians represent imperial Russia.

That is why I believe that the film is an ideal view of the world of a Russian "mobik"

[a recently mobilised soldier who is not prepared for combat operations] [seen] somewhere from a trench near Kherson. Who is he, what is he doing here and why did he come to give his life? They are cogs in the conveyor of death and do not see any sense in this war, and at the same time do not find the strength to oppose it. Just like Remarque's "boys", they go to war and suffer.

We may now be closer to films like "Saving Private Ryan" than endless stories about the sad and difficult fate of an average Ukrainian, on whom nothing depends...

Volodymyr Yatsenko: "All quiet on the Western Front" looks like a story made by Russians for Russians. If I were the Germans who made the film, I would give Russians the right to legally watch this film, even for free.

It takes time for us to be able to let everything pass through us, to realise what is happening to us. If Spielberg waited 40 years to make his "Schindler's List", it may not be a coincidence. We in cinema are only now, 30 years later, able to say something conscious about the trauma of the 1990s. These are Oleh Sentsov's "Rhino" and Iryna Tsilyk’s "Me and Felix" based on Artem Chech's book "Who are you?".

Therefore, I think it would be a big mistake to rush to shoot something heroic and pathetic during the war or immediately after it - the conditional Azovstal or "The Ghost of Kyiv". Although as a person who is friends with reality, I understand that we cannot get away from this.

If I were to make a movie about this war, maybe it would be a chamber drama. The story of how ordinary civilians turn into fighters. Because this is an inevitability that you have to live with all your life. You cannot erase it either from memory or from emotional experience.

Life after the war, feeling in the same boat

and biggest fears

All that now, while we are at war, sank into us like stones, after the war will rise to the surface again, that is when the struggle between life and death will begin.

Erich Maria Remarque, "All quiet on the Western Front"

Unlike Remarque's 18-year-old heroes, I know for sure that the war will end - it can’t be endless.

As an adult, first of all, I understand that there are economics, politics, and many other things that, whether we like it or not, affect what happens on the front. This war is a very expensive pleasure for the whole world.

Secondly, I am trying - and this is very important for me - to remain human after the war. I know many traumatised people, and I understand that these people will never return from the war, even if they physically survive. I would love to go back.


Volodymyr Yatsenko: "The Germans have not only a victim complex due to the fact that they lost in two world wars, but also a feeling of fantastic guilt. I think this explains their very specific attitude towards the Russians."

My greatest fear is that all our losses will be in vain. That after victory we will return to the same corrupt country that it was before. That we will continue to tolerate all these horrible things. That we will say to ourselves: "We defeated the Muscovites, good, and now we will live the same way we used to live." Corruption is not only about a bad official who takes bribes, it is about all of us.

My fear is not that we will not win - we can’t help but win. Yes, we can be destroyed, but not defeated. And that we will once again lose our chance. This is a more difficult battle – after defeating the Russians, defeating yourself.

Absolute evil for me is mistrust, which, like rust, eats away at us from the inside. We are ready to see betrayal in every gesture. And the inability to rejoice in the success of others is also [a statement] about us.

I understand that these are the consequences of an atomic society. When you are alone, you are definitely right, and you should treat everyone else as potential enemies. Otherwise you will not survive. But now with the philosophy "two Ukrainians - three hetmans" we will not build anything. Alone, we will be super successful in any other country we are taken to, but we will not be able to build our own.

During the war, it's easier. We are all together. You are a man in uniform on the front. This is a shared destiny, a feeling of being in the same boat. But even when you return from the front, you see how everything around you changes with each kilometre.

We have been going through all this since 2014. How many humiliating cases were there when military personnel with certificates of participation in hostilities were thrown from minibuses. This is not a bad government doing [this] to us. It's us.

Perhaps after the war, when we finally understand that we are not slaves, the ability to trust others will return through self-respect. At least I really hope so.

Mykhailo Kryhel, Ukrainska Pravda

Translation: Elina Beketova

Editing: David Matthews