When producer Malte Grunert reached out to Edward Berger about helming a new adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, the filmmaker naturally understood what a daunting ask that was and asked for time to think on it. "I remember when I came home to discuss this movie at the dinner table — if I should make it or not — my daughter immediately reacted," Berger says now. "She usually never reacts to the movies I want to do. She's utterly uninterested in that."
The then 17-year-old informed her father, "I just read it in school. If you have the opportunity to make this movie, you have to do it. It's the best book I ever read." In that moment, Berger realized, "If a book like that still had such an effect on a young woman — who's maybe not the target audience — 95 years after its first publication, it must have some relevance. And I recognized her fierce reaction to the book as mine when I was younger."
Authored by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran, and published in 1929, one decade after the armistice between Germany and the Allies ended the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front is widely regarded as one of the greatest anti-war novels ever written. The novel follows idealistic Paul Bäumer as he enlists in the army with his friends, eager to fight for the Fatherland, only to be shipped off to the frontlines and confronted with the brutal realities of war.
The book was adapted into a 1930 film which won Oscars for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture) and Best Director at the 2nd Academy Awards. It was the first Best Picture winner based on a novel. However, both Lewis Milestone's Oscar-winning 1930 film and Delbert Mann's Emmy-winning 1979 made-for-television movie were directed by Americans and made in English. Berger, who was born in Wolfsburg, West Germany, and currently resides in Berlin, is the first German filmmaker to adapt All Quiet on the Western Front.
"It's such an insurmountable hurdle, this movie. It's on many, many directors' top 10 lists, and I knew, 'If I screw this up, I'm never going to be able to look anyone in the eye again,'" he admits. "So, there was a big burden of responsibility towards this movie. But I also felt we were going to make a very subjective, different interpretation of this movie than Lewis Milestone did. It's going to be a very German movie. I never thought I'd say this, but I wanted to make this movie a lot more German than anything I'd done before."
At the 95th Oscars, All Quiet on the Western Front — or, Im Westen nichts Neues as it is titled in German — is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best International Feature Film. In conversation with A.frame, Berger reflects on shepherding his take on the film to the screen and the impact of his German heritage on his adaptation of the source material.
A.frame: What is your relationship to both the original novel and the 1930 film?
The novel, I read many times when I was a young adult, and then, again in my 20s. But then I had put it aside. I remember rereading it during the writing of this movie, to get all the good dialogue pieces, and to get inspired again, and to really understand what Remarque wanted to say, and what I wanted to add with the privilege and perspective on history we now have. Obviously, this book is already 95 years old, and we've had another war since then, so we wanted to say something about that too. So, it stuck with me a long time. That book is really part of our culture, it's totally ingrained in us, and it has a lot to do with the two wars that came from Germany. And we recognize ourselves, I think, in the telling of that book.
The movie, I watched it many times in film school. Before that, I remember catching it on television in my teens, just the back end of it. That image of the soldier reaching for the butterfly and being shot at the very end always stuck to me. Then I rewatched it during the writing, when I read the book again. I had written a scene that I took from the book, and then I rewatched the movie, and I realized I had forgotten about this: The scene was in the movie too. So, I had a crisis for about two or three weeks, thinking I can't make the film, because it's such an insurmountable hurdle, this movie... But I also felt, we're going to make a very subjective, different interpretation of this movie than Lewis Milestone did. It's going to be a very German movie. I never thought I'd say this, but I wanted to make this movie a lot more German than anything I'd done before. Germany, with its responsibility towards these wars, has something interesting to add to that conversation, because of our history, because of what we have done. And I think it's important to keep reminding us of German terror.
And this is the first time the book has been adapted to the screen by a German filmmaker. What was your approach to making it "a lot more German"? And how does the DNA or the essence of what this film is change, having it told by a German?
It's all the little parts that make the sum. It's little intuitions, little hunches. For example, we cannot tell a hero's journey. We cannot have a mission that you have to do, and then, in the end, you're successful. A German soldier cannot come out of a movie successful. You'd feel like, 'That's not what we've learned from history,' and I would feel guilty trying to portray that with all the horrors that came from this country. That would be wrong, to me. Whereas, in an American or British movie, you can tell that story. You can tell a hero's journey. You liberated Europe from fascism! You have the right to feel honorable and proud of that achievement. Germans don't have that, so we can't infuse a sense of honor, or pride, or achievement into any of the things that happen in this film. For example, a movie like 1917, a movie I very much admire and adore and watched multiple times, it is dedicated to Sam Mendes' grandfather because he fought in the war, because of the stories that he told his grandchildren, including Sam Mendes. My grandfather, luckily, was not in the war, but if he had been, I couldn't have dedicated a movie to him, because he would've been a murderer.
It also starts with casting. I had many handsome young men come for the casting that looked like Brad Pitt, and they were great. And if it were an American movie, the studio would probably say, 'No, no. Take that handsome guy.' As we're a German movie, it feels like, let's not make the main characters too heroic. Let them be studious, academic, nerdy, bumbling characters that feel a bit frail. Not too broad shoulders. Felix [Kammerer], our Paul, has a wonderful transparency, a wonderful sensitivity, a wonderful frailty to him that I think was important for this character. It's just that sensibility. It's just different. And I felt, 'If we make this movie, let's make it as German as possible, in German, and then, it can feel honest and, hopefully, reach people in the States that are interested in that perspective.'
The scope of this film is quite vast, told on these massive battlefields and with so many extras. How did you manage to maintain the intimacy of Paul's story and not get lost in the scope and the scale of it all?
Because of COVID, and also because of fear and respect of the material, I said, 'Let's fly James Friend, my DP, over to Berlin, and I'm going to lock him in his hotel room for three months, and we're going to sit there and storyboard the entire movie and really plan it.' Because it might look like there's scope — and I'm grateful if you say it does — but we did not have much money. We watched a ton of movies. We talked about the concept of how to shoot it, and the concept was single camera. We wanted it to be about Paul. To capture a battlefield like that, you usually use like three, four, five cameras. We did it with one camera, because we said, 'This is Paul's movie. We want the audience to experience everything he's experiencing firsthand, to make it as subjective, and as visceral, and as physical as possible for them.' The experience should grab you by the lapels and drag you through the mud with him.
That was our feeling. So, the camera was either his eyes, what he saw, or his face and his reactions. Everything else was unimportant. Everything else was background noise. Once in a while, there was maybe a wide shot, but that was to show you the lostness of him in this world. And for the battle scenes, we had many Zoom meetings with every department where we went through frame, by frame, by frame, by frame what we would need for each frame: makeup, blood pumps, SFX, costume, production design, VFX, stunts. We're all talking about, 'All right, what do we need for this shot? Five stunt men, seven bullets, three bullet hits. How do we achieve them? Is that VFX? Is it SFX?' We kept very accurate lists of who does what so that, on the day, when we get to that shot, we knew.
How close is what made it on the screen to your original storyboards?
The movie looks exactly like the storyboard. It's pretty much the same. On the day, I said, 'All right, this is the shot,' and we were able to focus on just that shot, because the entire crew knew what was going to come next. Because sometimes, on the way to work in the morning, I would look at the cameraman and say like, 'I don't think we can ever, ever achieve this day. I think we're going to fail today, and it's not going to work.' He's like 15 years younger but wiser than I am, and he gave me the very sage advice of, 'Let's just focus on one shot at a time. Let's just get one shot done.' That was really helpful. You said, 'All right, let's focus on this next shot. No matter what's next, let's just concentrate on that. Done. Next shot.' Breaking it down like that helped to keep the focus and helped keep the sanity, in a way.
Speaking of sanity, the subject matter here is not easy, and these days must have been very, very demanding. What was the atmosphere on set like as you were making this?
I think very concentrated, and you kind of have to keep the professional distance and do it technically. I know that I just tried to get through these shots and achieve them technically and try to understand what I would feel when watching them. It was very physical for all of us. For example, the prop master, who wore waders and heavy gear each day, he came up to me after the days and showed me his fitness band and said, 'I ran a half marathon today in this gear.' So, it was very physical for everyone.
But psychologically, I think I only realized during the edit the impact it had on me, and I had to wash it off for a couple months. It sort of left traces in my brain. Luckily, we edited during the summer. I really was panicking that it would become summer during the shoot. I remember the first day the birds started chirping and spring was coming, I thought, 'Damn!' Because I didn't want a single piece of blue sky in the movie. But luckily, I edited during the summer. And every day, I went home, and on the way home, we have a wonderful lake. And I remember sitting in that lake and just kind of bathing it out, that dirt, and blood, and grime.
Congratulations on the nominations. What does it mean to be recognized in that way and for this film?
I still can't grasp it. I'm shooting in Cinecittà in Rome right now in these wonderful studios, and we stopped for 15 minutes, and watched the livestream, and took it all in. And that was a wonderful feeling. A wave of luck and joy came over us. To get recognized by your peers, and so widely that my entire team got recognized — because we really worked hand-in-hand — it feels like a real group experience. That's what makes it really special and wonderful. And especially to be recognized by Americans and Brits, we have a common history together that includes war and conflict. To be recognized about a war movie is a really special moment.
You said how important it was to your daughter that you make this movie and tell this story. What was her reaction to what you did with All Quiet on the Western Front?
I invited my daughter to a test screening in late October. The film was pretty much locked. She came with two friends, the youngest in the audience, and she was pretty quiet after the movie. I was scared of her opinion and reaction. And I quietly asked her afterwards in the car, 'So, what did you think?' And she said, 'I really cried during that crater scene. And I'm really happy you made the movie.' That was probably the biggest validation — that I didn't betray the crater scene that she had singled out as the most important scene in the book for her — and that she enjoyed the result of our filmmaking endeavor. Really meant the world to me.
By John Boone