Crying cameramen and freezing conditions: How awards season favorite ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was made

Written by Thomas Page

This story contains spoilers for “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

During war, soldiers look for solace wherever they can find it. In “All Quiet on the Western Front,” director Edward Berger’s film of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 World War I novel, that place is the toilet.

Paul Bäumer and Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky, a schoolboy and cobbler turned soldiers, are perched over a communal latrine outside a German camp. Kat is illiterate, so Paul reads him a letter from his wife. It is sweet and sad and full of longing. Talk turns to after the war, and how Paul and Kat could ever hope to return to the life they knew. “We’ll walk around like travelers in a landscape from the past,” says Kat. “I ask myself, would I just rather sit around a campfire with you?”

It’s a gentle but devastating scene — doubly so in retrospect, as it pivots on a question neither will live long enough to learn the answer to. It’s also Berger’s favorite in the movie, though it was not originally in the script.

A studio note sent the director and co-writer looking for material to fill in their characters’ backstories. Berger turned to an online archive containing thousands of letters sent to and from WWI battlefields. One jumped out. “I thought, ‘wow,'” he recalled, “the language was beautiful.” It contained details about what a wife had sent to her husband at the Front, the money he had sent back, the people they knew back home — elements that Berger would repurpose into his narrative, including a care package featuring sausage, sauerkraut and hingfong essence (taken for nerves). “Don’t keel over on the home stretch,” the film’s version reads.

Felix Krammer (left) and Albrecht Schuch (right) as Paul and Kat, two German soldiers, in a still from director Edward Berger’s favorite scene in “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Credit: Netflix
Over the course of four hours in the biting cold on location outside Prague, Felix Krammer as Paul and Albrecht Schuch as Kat acted out the scene, trousers around their ankles. “We hold the shot of these two sitting on the toilet for, I think, two and a half minutes,” said Berger.

“Felix reads this letter as if he’d seen it for the first time … and Albrecht, the way he listens, it’s such a joy. He lets himself go, these emotions and this yearning for home. But on the other side (he’s) thinking he’s lost it; he can never go back.”

The battlefield as a Rubicon is brutally realized in Berger’s film. It features protracted violence — physical and psychological — that warrants comparison to Elem Klimov’s Soviet anti-war film “Come and See” (1985) and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), while its critique of military top brass is reminiscent of Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957).

But while its image-making may bear resemblance to other cinema, the sentiment behind the first German adaptation of Remarque’s novel is fresh, insists Berger. “The main reason for us to make it was an urge to tell our story,” said the director, referring to his German collaborators and himself. “To put all the feelings of how we grew up into this movie: the shame, the guilt, the responsibility towards the history that Germany brought on to the world.”

Battling the elements

Actor Albrecht Schuch (left) and director Edward Berger (center) on location n the Czech Republic during the shoot of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Credit: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

Until last year, the world had only watched Germany’s seminal anti-war novel through foreign eyes. Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-winning film of 1930 and Delbert Mann’s Emmy-winning TV movie of 1979 were both made in English and starred Americans. Even the latest film started life as a screenplay by British authors Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, before Berger combined their script with further elements from the novel to boost its German bona fides. (That said, some critics in Germany have admonished the film for straying from Remarque’s beloved text, including the addition of an armistice negotiation subplot.)

Filmed in the Czech Republic (“a country that was invaded twice by the Germans — they were so gracious to host us,” said Berger), it was a grueling shoot that captured some of the conditions endured by troops on the Western Front.

The ground was frozen in January 2021 when production designer Christian Goldbeck gave diggers the go-ahead to start carving out hundreds of meters of trenches across an area the size of four football fields. “We wanted to make it visceral and physical,” he said. “We tried to give the audience the scale of the whole thing, and that was quite a task.”

Production designer Christian Goldbeck says his team tested the impact of real explosives to create sets with maximum authenticity. Credit: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

Film crew stand above a trench while the cast mingle below on the set of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Credit: Reiner Bajo/Netflix
A thaw offered little respite when shooting began. “It’s raining, it’s bad weather, it’s cold,” Berger reminisced. “We sank into the mud up to our hips and had to be rescued. I probably lost five rubber boots during this movie.”

The toil reached a peak shooting the film’s grimmest scene, in which Paul, inside a large, flooded crater, repeatedly stabs a French soldier and watches him dying. Horrified by what he has done, Paul then tries to comfort him. It represents a long and gruesome exercise in cognitive dissonance as merciless soldier and terrified boy wrestle within the same person. “I remember Felix telling me suddenly he heard a noise,” said the director. “He realized the British camera operator was crying while he filmed him.”

“I think the crater scene is not only the heart of the movie and the heart of the book, it also became the heart of us. It really brought us together,” Berger added. “That was a wonderful experience. Hard, but wonderful.”

The crater set and the location for what director Edward Berger as the “toughest days” of the production, “because of the conditions, but also because of the emotional impact.” Credit: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

“This year we are the lucky ones”

“All Quiet on the Western Front” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September to strong reviews, then debuted on Netflix in October. By many accounts, it was not a horse the streaming giant was heavily backing heading into awards season — after all, it had new films from Noah Baumbach, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Andrew Dominik and Rian Johnson among its stable. Yet it swept February’s BAFTAs, the UK’s equivalent to the Oscars, winning seven awards of its 14 nominations. It has also received nine nominations at the Academy Awards, becoming the first German-language film to make the cut for Best Picture.

Love is for everyone. Modern romance writers are breaking barriers to show it
The film has not been without criticism at home, tabloid Bild accusing “All Quiet” of “Oscar-Geilheit” (or “Oscar-lust”). Whether it was looking for trophies or not, The Academy has a soft spot for war movies (16 have won Best Picture to date, including Milestone’s 1930 adaptation). That it has looked outside the English language for its fix this year is a sign of more international and inclusive times.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” has become the first German-language film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Credit: Netflix

“If (the Academy Awards) opens up, like it has opened up to us, or maybe the handful of other films before, like ‘Parasite,’ or ‘Drive My Car’ last year, that’s a wonderful thing,” said Berger, citing the South Korean Best Picture winner in 2020 and the Japanese Best Picture nominee. “This year we are the lucky ones.”
Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “All Quiet” has taken on bleak — if unintentional — topicality.

“If we can make a film that leaves the audience, like its protagonist, empty, tired and sort of questioning everything — for at least a minute — we (would have) achieved a lot. Then we can sit here and talk about it. It’s not going to change the world … but at least it’s a conversation that we can have. Because apparently, we always forget.”

This article has been updated with the number of wins the film was awarded at the BAFTAs.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *