You might wonder why Netflix mounted a new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, but you’ll know why once you see the movie, which is now playing in select cities before hitting Netflix this coming Friday.
Sure, a 1930 adaptation won the first Best Picture Oscar in the very first year of the Academy Awards, and many Americans still remember the star-studded TV movie from 1979, which received seven Emmy nominations, but this new adaptation of the still-timely anti-war tale may put all others to shame.
Given that Remarque was actually German, it makes sense that the latest adaptation of his book would benefit from the stewardship of a German filmmaker, Edward Berger, who has been directing movies for 30 years but is better known in the States for his work on The Terror and Your Honor. Those shows really put him on Hollywood’s radar, even though he returned to Europe to make All Quiet on the Western Front.
Above the Line spoke with Berger (in person!) a few weeks back for the following interview, in which he discusses the complexities of making an elaborate WWI movie, and why he chose to build an enormous battlefield in the Czech Republic rather than use visual effects to create it. He also gave us a much-needed history lesson during our conversation, so enjoy.
Above the Line: This book was previously adapted into a silent film as well as a TV movie here in the States. I think I’ve seen parts of the latter, but not sure I’ve ever seen the whole thing.
Berger: I’ve never seen it. I was told it was bad, so I didn’t go watch it.
ATL: I think it won an Emmy or two.
Berger: But that doesn’t count much, huh?
ATL: No, probably not back in 1979. Was this something that your producer had bought the rights to the novel and came to you with what he had already been developing with someone else before you got involved?
Berger: There probably had been, I think, many American iterations, people trying to make this as an English-language film in America, or buy it with an American filmmaker or international filmmaker. I wasn’t involved in that. At some point, my producer called me and said, “What if I could get the rights to this? Would you be interested?” And I immediately thought, “What a great idea.” It’s been lying there for 90 years … it almost felt like a tree that you need to shake and it falls into your lap, and we didn’t think of this. I immediately thought, “Yes, great. Let’s do this.” I didn’t need to reflect on it, and then later on, doubts started to creep in, and I was thinking, “What is this sheer idiocy to make a film that was already a great American film?”
We did feel this was a singular German perspective, because of its history. Having wreaked havoc twice over the world brings a certain sense of guilt and shame and responsibility towards that history that is going to flow into the movie and influence it, and that’s going to set it apart or make it different from an American or British film. Those filmmakers grew up very differently, with a sense of pride and honor [for] what their grandparents did. We can’t tell that story, so it felt like a good thing we could share, possibly, a perspective that might be interesting to Americans and to see how it feels like, from what we might have learned from history.
ATL: How long ago did he approach you with this?
Berger: About two and a half years ago.
ATL: I have to assume the Peter Jackson documentary was already in the works, and maybe Sam Mendes’ movie had at least been shot? There have been a lot of filmmakers revisiting WWI in recent years.
Berger: Actually, 1917 had just been made. We decided to make the film, and I think three weeks later, I went to the theater and watched 1917. But again, 1917 is dedicated to Sam Mendes‘ grandfather. It’s a distinctly British film, because he’s British, and he’s going to make a British film. He can’t make a German movie. We felt ours is different from that, because it’s a German movie, and it’s going to have a different perspective and a different feeling. That’s literally the main reason why we felt we could tell this story.
ATL: I always wondered why it was called All Quiet on the Western Front, because wouldn’t Germany be to the East? Who dubbed it the Western Front?
Berger: The Germans, because France is in the west of Germany, so that was the Western Front and the Eastern Front was Russia. It’s definitely not West from the American perspective… again, it’s a question of perspective! The author is from Germany; it’s the biggest German bestseller of all time. And that’s also a reason. I grew up with this book. It’s a national treasure, and you feel, to turn that into a movie — what a great challenge. If it had been a French book or an American book, I would probably feel like, “Why am I making it? Let the French guy make it.”
ATL: That makes sense. Incidentally, both my parents were German, and I was able to spend time in Germany with them. I know many Germans are still trying to make up for all the horrible things that were done before they were even alive.
Berger: No, but you inherit it. It’s in my DNA. It’s not something you can easily forget.
ATL: Let’s talk about Felix, who plays Paul Bäumer. Is it true that he’s never acted before, or that he’s never been in front of a camera?
Berger: He went to drama school in Berlin — he’s Austrian, and now as part of the ensemble at the Burg Theater in Vienna, which is the most preeminent theater in Europe. It’s a really big old theater — it’s a big place. It’s like the Met in Europe. But he has small parts there, and he’s obviously young, and he’s never been in front of the camera before. The producer’s wife sent me his picture — the first picture I saw was of Felix. She said, “You should look at this kid for this role.” We looked at him and obviously looked at 500 others, because you’re not going to take the first person that walks in the door. And then we tested him again and again and put a uniform on him, because he is also a dancer. He is very light on his feet, and he’s elegant, and he knows how to move. But that didn’t feel right for the trench, and so I put these heavy boots on them. Because in running shoes, you walk differently than in hiking boots or in motorcycle boots, so you had these heavy boots and the uniform that really fit him and that grounded him. From casting to casting, he just grew into this role, and by the time we called him, he just blew everyone out of the water. It was clear that it was him.
ATL: I was curious how you audition for a movie like this. It’s not like you can just have him read sides. I mean, there is some dialogue and dramatic stuff in there, but not so much with his character.
Berger: There’s actually not much dialogue. I think I even wrote some scenes for casting that I later didn’t put into the script, like two or three-page dialogue scenes. What was really interesting [is that] I did rehearsals, and I took my iPhone – [pretend] you’re the other comrades, and I’m Felix – and so I’m behind Felix with a camera and I’m filming him, because I’m trying to figure out the shot of how to film the scene in front of the school, for example, because I wanted to do it in one shot. Theater actors, they often ignore the camera, because on stage, you walk wherever you want, because there’s space. They look into your eyes, to catch your eye, and he was so interesting, because you’d tell him, ‘Just notice I’m here,’ and he immediately went, ‘Oh, okay, great. Good that I know.’ He was so eager to learn that on the first day off the set, he immediately knew, that’s the camera. It felt like an old pro camera actor, and it was like a dance. He made a dance with the camera and his colleagues. Wonderful guy.
ATL: How did you cast the group of young actors who play his school chums who he enlists with, and then, as it goes along, he becomes closer with the other men in his unit, so did you already have Felix before you started casting others?
Berger: At the same time, but you don’t make a decision about the others before you have him, and then they sort of fall into place. The two people I had was Cat — Albrecht Schuch – because I just had him in my head when I wrote it, and he’s a quite well-known actor with a lot of awards, and Daniel Bruhl, also, for Matthias Erzberger, so those two I had in my mind. Luckily, they said “yes,” but everyone else was cast around Felix, especially the group of friends in school. They all needed to look different and need to have that their personality. A lot of them were like him, because I wanted to have the audience not associate 10 other movies with them. I wanted them to be fresh, innocent faces that we don’t know, and we get to love, hopefully, over the course of the film.
ATL: You wound up shooting this in the Czech Republic, so how did you end up there and what was involved with things like the battleground, which is just an enormous set — not sure how big that actually was.
Berger: The battleground was really massive. I don’t know how many football fields but probably 20 football fields. It was really big. It went on for hundreds of meters between the two trenches. I would say at least 350 yards in between them because we wanted these unbroken shots where we could run and run with the actors, so you needed a long stretch. Also looking into the distance and seeing the gunfire in the distance, so it was a big space. Prague is just a place that has great crews and is very hospitable. [It’s a] very good place to shoot, and it’s cheaper than Germany or France, so it’s a financial reason, too. Has a good tax break, [and] a good support system there. There were certain historical buildings, and we didn’t have many, but some. You’ll find them in Prague or Eastern Europe, rather than in Germany. In Germany, everything is renovated and new, but sometimes you still find those places around Prague.
ATL: I assume there’s some VFX involved as well, so did you have people from that team on set?
Berger: Oh, of course, but to be honest, there wasn’t that much VFX. A lot of it is in-camera, and everything, especially that’s close to camera, any explosion, that’s always real, because with VFX, you can get that interaction of the particles in the air with the sun and falling on the actors and the actor reacting to that. Basically, when I showed the movie to the VFX company that did the VFX, they watched it and said, “You don’t really need anything. It works like this.”
ATL: Was this the first time you worked with the DP, James Friend?
Berger: No, we did Patrick Melrose together, which was a series, and we did a series called Your Honor together that we did in the States, and then this movie, so we did three things together. I hired him for Patrick Melrose — that was our first collaboration.
ATL: How did you work with him? You obviously want spontaneity from your actors, but there are a lot of complicated shots, so did you end up storyboarding everything in advance?
Berger: We storyboarded, especially all the battle scenes, but also some others. We shot-listed everything and storyboarded the battle scenes, because otherwise, you really need those two as a communication tool with a team also because there’s stunt work involved, SFX, tanks going over trenches with actors underneath. That’s going to be dangerous. How do you film that? All these elements, you really need to discuss in hundreds of hours of meetings with every department, to coordinate.
Storyboards are really important, and also, to keep your sanity a little bit. To know, “Alright, we planned the whole thing,” but then sometimes, on the way to set, I was literally under the weight of it, I almost buckled and then James was there to prop me up and vice versa when he was down. The mantra was always, “Alright, we know where we’re going, what the entire sequence is, but let’s just think one shot at a time,” because otherwise, you just buckle under the weight. It’s just too much and too complicated. In general, I really like and wanted to put it into this film, a good mixture, but also, a lot of unbroken long takes. Those are really complicated to get sometimes.
ATL: One of the things that make your movie more interesting is that it’s going back and forth between the stuff on the battlefield and all the diplomacy stuff behind the scenes. Did you try to shoot one of them before the other, like finishing all the battlefield stuff before shooting the presumably easier dialogue scenes?
Berger: No, it was back and forth, but we definitely split up the battles, because they were stylistically also very different. There [are] three big battle scenes. We definitely didn’t want to start on the battlefield, because we knew that was going to be complicated, and also, the first scene is one very long, unbroken take. We knew we had to rehearse that [as it] goes from in the trench, out the trench, running with him behind a log and then hitting him with a shovel in the neck. So it was a long, complicated take that needed a lot of rehearsals. We rehearsed that scene, for example, one day, just the grips with the crane, and special equipment called the stabler, that you can take off the crane and run with it. We rehearsed that once just with a camera crew and an AD team, and then we brought in the actors and the stunt team on the second day. And then on the third day, we actually shot that scene properly. It actually took three days to suit should that one scene, but two of those days were rehearsal days.
ATL: Were there a lot of set-ups like that sequence you described and were they easy to reset? How much resetting were you even able to do when you’re spending three days setting up to shoot one sequence? Can you go back and do a second take?
Berger: No, we did 16 takes, because it was really complicated, and every time something goes wrong….you basically shoot it all day, and it takes probably 45 minutes to reset, get everyone back to one, put the ammunition back in the guns and make sure that it’s properly supervised, load the explosions, get the camera back and iron out the kinks in the movements of the camera and rehearse a little bit again, just that little section. It probably takes 45 minutes to an hour to do it again.
ATL: How hard was it to make such a large-scale movie like this during the pandemic? How did that affect production or post or both? Did it change a lot of how you normally work?
Berger: Well, it made everything more joyless for all of us. Basically, I really shielded myself. I only rode in the car with the DOP, because I knew if I would have COVID, then we shut down for two weeks. Summer was looming. I didn’t want to shoot in beautiful weather, so we really needed the dreary winter weather, gray skies and rain, and mud and everything. If summer had come, I know we would have [had] to stop for four or five months and come back in the fall, and that would mess everything up. I really wanted to stay healthy and not shut the production down. Luckily, we didn’t have a single day of [the] shutdown. Basically, I spent three months in a hotel room before we even started prep with the DP, storyboarding – locked away and planning the movie. And then, the team came on and we dove in. Otherwise, it’s a bit joyless because you ride to set, you drive home, you don’t meet anyone. It’s just joyless, but otherwise, it’s the same thing. It didn’t have any restrictions that I felt I couldn’t do.
ATL: Were you still able to communicate with the actors as you needed to?
Berger: No, it was good because we were outside. I had my mask on, and they had face shields, and we were hardly ever inside, so that was helpful.
ATL: I’m curious about some of your other heads of department on this and how you put together your team. Were there many that you had worked with before on other movies?
Berger: Only with the cameraman and the music composer – those I knew very well – and the camera operator. That was my core team, and everyone else was new, but everyone else I knew their work and I’d followed their work and somehow I was never able to collaborate with them — timing didn’t work out — and this time I got them, so it was very fortunate to get those people, because for anything – costume, the way the wear and tear on the costume — she designed that – or the makeup to express what’s inside. Everything was always geared to what is inside these people’s stomachs. What is their inner state, and [how does] that manifest outside? I was really lucky with the team, basically. Very good people.
ATL: Prague has really good infrastructure for production, too, so a lot of great crews there, in costumes, construction, and such.
Berger: Usually, the heads of department come from abroad, but anyway, great infrastructure, great people, and great crews to work with.
ATL: Let’s talk about the score by Volker Bertellman, since that also has to transition between the big battle sequences and quieter dialogue moments. How did you discuss the score and was he involved before you began production?
Berger: Yes, he was, but I just talked to him about it – we didn’t do any music before. That really came afterward, when I showed him the rough cut. You just mentioned it, but the movie was a lot about contrast, too. Loudness [and] silence – the sound department is brilliant, the sound design. They were fantastic, and they really created a sound for the industrialization of war, almost everything became a machine, and they created sounds for that. And how humans become machines, basically, to protect their souls. Otherwise, they’d be crippled inside, so they try to block whatever they feel out to become these killing machines, because otherwise you can’t sustain that psychologically. Volker was Oscar-nominated for the movie Lion, and I had worked with him on a series called Patrick Melrose and a bunch of other things.
With Volker, I showed him the rough-cut, pretty much final cut actually, and I said, “I want three things. First of all, I want a sound, or music that I’ve never heard before,” especially in this type of movie, because I always feel when you watch a movie, [the] music brings it almost to a different stratosphere if it’s special. You feel like suddenly, “Oh, wow,” it transports you to another world. I really wanted to try to get a sound that is different, that people sort of feel like an echo that levels them to somewhere else. And secondly, I said, “Let’s destroy the images in order not to glorify or prettify anything,” not to beautify things and sentimentalize things, to give you space to make your own emotional decisions rather than the music forcing you in a direction. The third was to have the music really, again, sort of vocalize what Paul Bäumer feels inside: the rage, the fear, the thirst for revenge, for blood, for whatever that was, let’s find a sound for that. And then he came back the next day, he sent me a short clip with that [sings one of the film’s more bombastic themes], and that was it. I played it to my family, and they were like, “Wow, what’s that?” I called it the Led Zeppelin sound, by the way, because it was so Led Zeppelin-y. I felt that’s a great contrast to a movie like this. It just feels like rock and roll, suddenly, and it punches you in the face, and then basically, the score is based on those three notes. That’s it.
ATL: When you first hear it, it’s really quite unexpected, because it’s not the typical war movie score.
Berger: That was the goal. Also, by the way, it’s an instrument. It sounds modern, but the instrument is 100 years old. He inherited it from his grandmother. It’s a harmonium, and he put it through Marshall amp basically, but also there are sounds underneath, because you pump air into the instrument as you play the keys, and there are sounds underneath. When you listen to it again — you know, when you see the movie 10 times — you’ll hear underneath those [sings the three-note theme again] there’s this [makes mechanical noise sounds]. That’s the machine of that instrument, the inner workings. Again, it’s a machine of war somehow, and he put that in the score.
ATL: Obviously, you’ve directed quite a bit of television, sprinkling in movies throughout, so what do you do next? Do you have more television lined up? Are you able to go back and forth fairly easily?
Berger: For me, there’s no distinction, and I’m guided by what the story is. What is the next story that I want to make? And if that happens to be Patrick Melrose, it’s better in four or five episodes rather than a movie, and so I’m guided by whatever that is. But the next one is a movie I’m doing in Rome, called Conclave, I’m actually in prep already, and it’s with Ralph Fiennes, and it’s about the election of a pope.
All Quiet on the Western Front is still playing in select cities, and it will begin streaming on Netflix worldwide on Friday, Oct. 28.