‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ Director Edward Berger On Re-Creating The Hell Of WWI: “We Wanted To Drag The Audience Through The Mud”

Edward Berger caused a splash in 2015 with the sleeper-hit TV series Deutschland ’83, a slow-build spy drama set in the deep freeze of the cold war. This year he went even further back into Germany’s history for All Quiet on the Western Front, a brutal retelling of Erich Maria Remarque’s First World War novel, first published in 1929. Many years in limbo, including a period of time with Daniel Radcliffe attached, the project received an adrenaline shot when Berger came on board to take the novel back to its German roots. The harrowing Netflix production has captivated audiences all over the world with the story of rookie soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), and has a strong shot at the International Oscar, having made the 15-title shortlist while opening up four further possibilities for music and craft.

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DEADLINE: This project has been gestating for a long time. When did you first hear about it?

EDWARD BERGER: Just before the Berlin Film Festival in 2020, so, by now, it’s almost three years ago. Malte Grunert, the producer, called me and said, “What would you think if I could get the rights?” I thought, “What a great idea. It’s just been sitting there. Let’s do it!” So, the initial instinct was that it was a really good idea, but, of course, I wanted to go home and talk about it. I’m always riddled with doubt about what the next film should be, so I talk through it at the dinner table. Normally, the moment I bring up my next project, my kids disappear. They think, “Oh, it’s so boring.” But this time, my daughter heard the title and she whipped around and said, “All Quiet on the Western Front? You absolutely have to do it. It’s the book that’s touched me most. I cried three times. I just read it in school.”

DEADLINE: How old are your kids?

BERGER: She was 17 at the time. She’s now 20. I thought, “If a book still has such an impact on a 17-year-old girl something like 90 years after its publication…” — and it’s a war novel, it’s not really meant to entertain a 17-year-old girl — “there must be some relevance left to it.” And then I read the script and I felt it was a great basis to add to. What I wanted to bring to it is the German perspective… It was written by two British writers, and had been in development [for many years]. I actually don’t know much about that story, what happened before. I didn’t research it. I didn’t care, really. But the reason, I assume, why it had never been made was because it had always been an English-language script. Now, there’s already an existing English-language adaptation that is very famous and very good [directed by Lewis Milestone, 1930], so I imagine people would have been saying, “Why would we need to make this again?” For me, the big reason to make it again was to go back to the German novel and make a German film out of it. Which is something that no English or American filmmaker can theoretically do because they don’t have that heritage.

DEADLINE: What did the scriptwriting process involve?

BERGER: I took the British script that existed and imbued it with that sense that I just talked about, while taking things from the novel, taking things from research, and taking things from inside of me. There were also certain poetic elements that we added. For example, the scarf. Individual little things like that which make the characters dear to us, in a way. But mostly, there’s also an attitude in the novel that I tried to imbue into the rewrite of the script, and also into the filming. The attitude, or the style of the novel, is almost like a journalist describing — in a fairly unemotional, factual way — what’s happening to these kids. And as a reader, because he doesn’t dictate to you what you’re supposed to feel, you bring your own interpretations and you feel all the more, I think. We tried to do that a little bit, but the novel is also very brutal and visceral.

The north star during the rewriting and during the planning of the movie was always the novel, which has a really interesting reportage feeling. We tried to find a mixture of styles, and first of all we tried to hit that tone by saying, “Let’s grab the audience by the collar and drag them through the mud, make them feel that they are there. Make it a really subjective, visceral experience.” But it’s a hard balance to strike. At the same time, you have to stay five inches further back to get this kind of observational style, and maybe not use music that emotionalizes or sentimentalizes but which almost destroys the images and finds the guttural noise that is in Paul’s stomach and makes you feel it too.

But in terms of the scale of the film, I think a lot of it came in the writing, from that final script. James Friend, the cameraman, and I just sat down with it and asked each other, “What kind of shot would [this written scene] equate to?” There are scenes that are going to need a wide shot, and suddenly the scene feels big. But it needs to feel big, because the people in the story are, in a way, very small. They’re pawns. And so you need, sometimes, to get the feeling that you’re getting lost in the utter chaos that is all around you.

DEADLINE: Some of it does look completely miserable. Was it really as grim as it looks, or is that the magic of the movies?

BERGER: No, it was pretty miserable. We shot an hour outside of Prague in spring, and the biggest fear of the shoot, for me, was the looming summer. I really wanted to finish before May, and we just about made it. We filmed into May, but these were mostly summer scenes at the beginning of the film, when they’re leaving their town, and so forth. So, the weather there was fine to be getting warmer, but I really wanted this dreary winter feeling. And so, yes, it was very cold. It was very rainy. It was very muddy. Sometimes the prop person came to me at night and showed me his fitness band, saying, “I ran a half marathon today,” just running back and forth in the mud. It was very strenuous, very demanding, for everyone.

DEADLINE: How did you cast the film? Where did you find the boys, and what were you looking for?

BERGER: Well, I really believe in casting and spending a long time trying to find the right people. Not only actors, but also locations and crew. It’s about putting people together. Casting and spending a lot of time on prep really guides the film and guides the camera. A lot of the work you do on set actually is done already in casting, if you pick the right people: you might think, “Well, that person interprets this character the way I see it,” or, “This person is so surprising. They’ve brought something new.” [For the soldiers], it was important that you hadn’t seen these actors before. They’re so iconic, these roles, that it was important that you should meet them with a certain innocence, that you don’t go, “Oh, I’ve seen them in Harry Potter…”. I needed a new actor, a new face, to associate with Paul Bäumer. It’s such an iconic literary role. So that was important to me.

Felix Kammerer, who plays Paul Bäumer, had never been in front of a camera before. This was his first movie, and we found him in a theater in Vienna, because the producer’s wife works there. It’s the Burgtheater in Vienna, the pre-eminent theater in Europe, I would say. A very old institution. He usually plays small parts there, but he’s such a wonderful actor we invited him for casting maybe four or five times. The second time, we put a uniform on him, because he’s also very elegant — he can dance really well — so I wanted to ground him a bit more. As soon had the boots and the uniform on, he walked differently. And just from each casting, he started inhabiting this role more and more. By the fifth time or so, we knew this was the guy, even if he had never done it before.

Some of the [other cast] are known, like Daniel Brühl or Albrecht Schuch, who plays Kat, but they’re also the more experienced characters. Those were the two guys that I had in my mind while writing, but the others were all supposed to be very new, fresh actors.

DEADLINE: Did they have to do any kind of boot camp?

BERGER: Yes. They did, for a week or two. You have to learn how to salute and do these military things that none of us know how to do. So, there was a military advisor, and the stunt men put them through a physical boot camp so that they could get fit and wouldn’t hurt themselves when running across the field. Then there was the armorer, who taught them how to shoot and throw grenades. It was interesting when everyone came to set, especially the kids… I mean, I call them “the kids” but they were in their early 20s. We did a costume test, and that was the first time they had their uniforms on. They were very excited making this movie, this adventure we were about to embark on. They would soon find out that it was going to be a lot of really hard work.

DEADLINE: That must have been good for the film, surely?

BERGER: It was. I saw in their faces the same innocence that the kids have in the beginning of the film, going off to war back then. I thought, “That’s what it must have felt like to them.” Going away from their parents for the first time, into a foreign country, they treated it as an adventure. They were excited about it and very, very early on they found out that it was just … horror.

DEADLINE: How old was Felix when you shot the movie?

BERGER: Felix was about 23 or 24 when we made the film. He’s older than Paul Bäumer, who’s 18 in the movie. But I also cast a lot of 18-year-olds, and I felt like, “Well they’re just kids.” They’re almost too innocent. But at 24 you’ve been away from home for a little bit. You’ve had your first disappointments, maybe. There’s something in your eyes, a certain wisdom, that you’ve learned. So, Felix was exactly the right age to play both ends: to play the young, innocent kid who wants to go into this adventure, and the guy who’s aged before his time, who’s jaded and whose emotions are gone. You need to be able to play both those ends, and Felix was exactly at that right age.

DEADLINE: How do you approach violence in a film like this? How do you know how much is too much and how much is not enough?

BERGER: Well, the book is very violent. It’s really brutal. That’s, again, kind of the north star: to say, “OK, what can I read and what can I translate onto film?” I felt it had to be pretty brutal, because anything that feels sort of glossed over would be untruthful and therefore propaganda, kind of glorifying it. And so I wanted to make it a physical, visceral experience, putting the audience right into it. Which includes violence.

But what’s enough and what’s not enough? That’s so subjective. It’s just about having an inner compass, where you say, “Well, I don’t want to see this anymore.” But sometimes that can be good. Sometimes you need to be able to turn away from a movie, to be repulsed by it. I don’t want you to watch the whole movie and just go, “OK.” [He shrugs] You need to be physically attacked by the violence. You need to feel the impact of the violence. I mean, I’m assuming that some people do turn away, and I think that’s a fair reaction. I would turn away myself. Obviously, I’m numbed by [this movie now], because I’ve seen it so many times, but if I saw this in another movie, I would probably look away … Sometimes in movies when I see harsh violence, there’s a certain level where I can’t look anymore, and I like that. I want to be in shock of what’s happening on screen. So I’m trying to hit that spot. Whether I succeed or not, I don’t know. It’s probably different for everyone.

DEADLINE: The scene where Felix kills a French soldier is very difficult to watch, because there’s so many layers to it. First, he doesn’t see that he’s been programmed to kill, and then he realizes that he doesn’t want to kill … And then he tries to undo this terrible thing that he’s done.

BERGER: “Programmed to kill” is a great way of putting it. And then he suddenly realizes, “Why am I doing this? This guy’s just like me.” In that scene, I don’t think it’s so much the violence, because the scene isn’t really that violent. It’s just relentless. It doesn’t let you go. That’s part of a film like this that I think is important: a relentlessness that just keeps you, and that comes from not editing anything out. This scene is actually sort of shot in real time. He jumps in, stabs the guy, crawls away, realizes he’s still alive, tries to get out of the crater, gets shot, crawls back, tries to shut him up, tries to give him water, and we witness every second of it. For scenes like this, I like cutting in real time and not cutting a single step out. If the actor needs to take five steps to get to the guy, it’s got to be five steps. In other films, in other scenes, you might go, “Well let’s take one step and then cut to a close up and shorten the walk just to speed up the scene.” We didn’t do that in this scene. We just kept you there for every second of it. That gives the impression of relentlessness, where you feel you’re physically attacked. To me, it’s important to keep you there and not let you go.

That scene, by the way, was three pages long in the script, and, usually, a page is a minute. I’d rehearsed it before the shoot, in a rehearsal room, and then we rehearsed it on set. It was 10 minutes long, and we’d only scheduled a day and a half. The AD came to me and said, “Can you simplify this? Because if you shoot it like this, it’ll take three or four days.”

DEADLINE: What did you do?

BERGER: I just ignored him because my daughter had singled out that scene. She said to me, “That scene in the crater when he kills the Frenchman is so hard to read.” It’s hard to read because you witness every second of it. And I knew I had to get this scene right in order not to disappoint her. And so we did, in the end, spend three days on it. It was very hard for everyone to achieve it, but it was really important to get every single step of it.

DEADLINE: The pacing of the film is interesting, because you often cut back from the frontline to show us what’s happening behind the scenes. Is that something you put in to break up the violence?

BERGER: It came from several impulses. First of all, I felt Remarque didn’t have this perspective. He wrote this novel in the ’20s. He didn’t know yet that there was going to be a Second World War. And so, as a modern audience, we have the perspective that the First World War was just the beginning of things, that there would be even bigger terrors ahead. And the story of Matthias Erzberger, Daniel Brühl’s character, is a reflection of that. Basically, the Prussian military said, “Let’s send a politician to appease the French.” But what they actually wanted to do was not take the blame themselves, because they wanted to save face. And after the signing of the Armistice, they turned around and said, “The politicians betrayed us. They stabbed us in the back. We would’ve won the war, had they not signed it away.” And they used this later. First of all, nationalists assassinated Erzberger in 1921, because they blamed him for the loss of the war. Then Hitler used it, and the Nazis used it, and the military used it to create the legend that they were betrayed, and that they now had the right to start another war. It’s a perpetually repeated lie that then became the truth in many people’s minds and started another world war. We wanted to shed a light on that.

But, also, you’re right: it’s a good contrast. The central battle scene is probably over half an hour, I assume. I don’t know how long; I’ve never timed it. Maybe 40 minutes, the whole stretch. That’s pretty long. At some point, you’re just numb and it just has no effect, so the film very much became about creating contrasts. Behind the scenes; on the frontline. Quiet; noise. Dark; light. Peace; war. Nature; destruction. Those contrasts became important. And so the behind-the-scenes moments, the pacing of them and the quietness, just are really important breathers so that we can then go back to hell. Otherwise, you’d just switch off.

DEADLINE: Are you going to become the go-to guy for German history now?

BERGER: I don’t think so, no. I mean, I’m planning a movie in English now that I’m shooting in Italy in January, so I’m going to steer away from German history for a little while.

DEADLINE: What can you say about your new project?

BERGER: I’m shooting a movie in Rome called Conclave with Ralph Fiennes. It’s about, basically, a spiritual journey of doubt, which Ralph Fiennes’ character has, but also about the election of a Pope. That journey of doubt attracted me, and also the fact that it’s an interesting story about vying for power and the power games that go on behind the scenes.

DEADLINE: What kind of setting? Is it modern day?

BERGER: Yeah, it’s now.

DEADLINE: And how did that go down at the dinner table?

BERGER: [Laughs] I don’t think I asked them about that one!

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