The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of All Quiet on the Western Front.
It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking. How did you come up with a shot list?
Edward Berger: I spent months and months and months with the DP, James Friend, who is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other since Patrick Melrose. During prep, I spent more time with him than with my family, unfortunately. We locked ourselves in a room for three months in Berlin, and we’d do 10-14 day stretches at a time. Meticulous is the right word. We were obsessed with finding the right shots to tell the story. The movie didn’t have much money—compared to American films, laughable—so we really needed to plan and know exactly what we were going to do. And we spent those months storyboarding everything, especially the battle scenes, completely. If you were to put the storyboards next to the movie, it would look exactly the same. Maybe a shot was dropped, or two were swapped, but it’s really what we conceived. It’s the part of planning I really enjoy. I would also say that in a film like this, very often you might use two, three, four, five cameras to capture everything and make sure you have the coverage. We shot everything single camera. There was a second camera there that we would use to plan ahead, but 99.5% of the time, we shot with just one camera to get exactly the precise moment that we felt would let the audience experience what Paul was feeling. That was the main motivation, to give the audience the feeling of what Paul has in his stomach.
Everything is there to put you in Paul’s shoes.
Your DP said that his collaboration with you is one of the most unique he’s had with a director.
EB: We’re both obsessed with precision and architecture in the film. It’s not haphazard and we don’t try to find the shot on set. It gives me true pleasure to set up a shot and in that shot, have every department create the illusion that this is reality. Let it be production design, the SFX, makeup, the smoke that’s in the background or the explosion that is nearby, the wear and tear on the costumes, the music… everything is there to make that moment feel real. Everything is there to put you in Paul’s shoes. We both really love the crafting of each shot.
I heard that during the battle sequences you put a whiteboard with the storyboards next to the camera. That’s a technique I’ve really only experienced in commercial work. Can you talk about that?
EB: With commercials, they are making short stories but they have more time, and it’s for the client. For us, it was more a means to keep our sanity. On any movie, I think you have to think about the whole film. This shot will pay off there later, etc. But on the battle scenes, if I had to think about the whole film, it would have broken me. I really needed to break those down into little bits by really planning those scenes of the movie ahead of time, in our hotel room with storyboards. This shot will flow into the next, here’s what we need here, and so on. You really imagine the film again and again on the wall in a stark hotel room. We kind of planned the whole film and had hundreds of hours of discussions with the departments so that they knew what we needed to achieve on any given day. And on the day when James and I drove to set, sometimes in the morning I’d almost be in tears thinking about how we’d never get it done, and he’d prop me up. And the next day he would be down and I’d try to prop him up. We also didn’t have much leeway. If we didn’t finish a certain scene, there was no way to pick it up the next day. There was no time. We’d get to set and say, let’s just do one shot at a time. That really helped mentally, one a shot at a time. It’s very gratifying, and gives you joy and relief. Then you go to the next shot, and at the end of the day you realize we did these seven shots or these twenty-two shots and we accomplished what we wanted! It was like a mental crutch.
I can’t believe this was your lead’s first movie role—he was phenomenal. Did that change the way you approached your process at all?
EB: Felix Kammerer’s headshot was the first one I received, from [producer] Malte Grunert’s wife. She said, you should look at this kid, he’s in Vienna in the Burgtheater— the most preeminent theater in Europe. She told me he had mostly small parts and had just finished drama school, and he’s never been in front of a camera. Which was kind of great. We had always wanted to discover someone because we wanted the audience to have the feeling that they are discovering someone. If you haven’t seen this person before, you can encounter him with innocence, just like he went with innocence into this war. In a movie like this, you want your lead to be a whiteboard that the audience can project onto, not a familiar face. He came to about four or five casting sessions, and in the second one I put him in a uniform and heavy boots. He’s not a solider, and that was helpful. He’s an intelligent kid who went to a good school; he’s a dancer and light in his movements. Putting those heavy boots on him really grounded him. When you wear different shoes, you walk differently. That’s what happened to Felix and he grew into this role. I also think he has sort of an old-fashioned face. He could be from any era. You looked at him and he looked like he could have lived a hundred years ago. All of the young actors, in the makeup and costume tests, they were all so excited about the shoot. For many of them it was the biggest film they had done and they were so excited to start this adventure. Looking at them, it rang true. These kids were away from home for first time, and their grandfathers had been heroes from previous wars that had been won very quickly. They were really told that in three weeks they’d be in Paris and it would be over and they’d return heroes. They didn’t have TV back then so they didn’t know what it was really like. They were exposed to propaganda and populist speech and were manipulated.
How did you come to find that searing three-note musical score?
EB: Volker Bertelmann [the composer] and I are very good friends. We’ve done three or four movies together. I showed him the film and said three things. First of all, I wanted the music to sound like something we’ve never had before, to be different. Because to me that puts the movie in a different realm. In some movies, you want the music to disappear, but in this movie, I felt we needed to lift it into someplace else. Second, I wanted him to destroy the adventures, to make them dirty and not beautify anything. And the third thing was, again, what does Paul feel in his gut? The fear, the rage, the thirst for blood, the coldness, I wanted him to find a sound for that. I showed him the film and two days later he said, I think I’ve got something. I listened to it and I immediately said, don’t change anything. That became the theme. The nice thing is that is sounds quite modern, and I like that it’s not historically accurate. That drumbeat whips around your ears. A certain note of destruction is what I was looking for. The instrument used is a hundred-year-old instrument that Volker inherited from his grandmother. He refurbished it and it’s called a harmonium. He played these three notes, and in the harmonium you basically puff air with foot pedals. You hear the machine, the creaks and cracks of the harmonium. It’s another theme of the film—the machinery and industrialization of war. Humans becomes killing machines. They lose everything that is warm and human. It fit the theme of the film and then he put it through a distortion app, and that’s how it came about.
Do you think there was something that a German director could say about this story that no one else could?
EB: That’s the only reason why I made it. It’s a German novel and it’s part of our cultural heritage. It really sits deep with me and I read it when I was very young. When my producer called me to ask if we should make this movie together, I went home and thought, what a great idea. It’s been sitting there, but should I really make this? There’s another film that was made that’s probably on the top lists of many filmmakers, so the potential for failure was huge. I went home and discussed it at the dinner table, and my kids are usually not interested in my work. But the moment I mentioned the title, my daughter whipped around and said, I just read it in school—she was seventeen at the time—and you have to make it, it’s the best book I’ve ever read. So if a girl of age seventeen, ninety years later is still impacted by the book, it must have some relevance today. I made the movie because in America, in England, you can look back at the scars from the wars as much as in any other county. But there’s also a sense of pride. Americans can tell a hero’s journey because their fathers went to help liberate Europe from Fascism. The English defended their country because they were attacked. There’s something honorable there. There is a sense of legacy and pride you can look back on. In Germany, there’s nothing but shame, guilt, horror, terror, a sense of responsibility towards what happened. I grew up with that and still feel it, even generations later. It’s in my DNA. I thought if I made a film, creatively, I’d have something new to add the conversation. And it might be interesting for other countries to see how Germans tell their story, with that history.