Cinema has long shown the horrors of war, particularly the devastation involved within the first and second World War. Young boys signing up for the countries, shipped off in the thousands with little training, told to kill and survive circumstances that are beyond their control. We, as the audience, are horrified and moved by the gruesome reminder of our collective world history on the brink and during these events. A key feature film in depicting World War One was All Quiet on the Western Front, the Best Picture winning film of 1930 based on the 1929 novel of the same name. It was considered to be as realistic interpretation of war that anyone had seen on film and is still considered by many to be the film to recommend anyone to understand what happened in our world many years ago.
Flash forward 90 years, as German director Edward Berger has given us a breathtaking, relentless update on the novel and film that was engrained in his country’s history. Berger, a storyteller who has spent most of the time making small dramas overseas, while working as a television director when working in the states. But with his version of All Quiet on the Western Front, he makes his biggest, boldest, and most personal piece of work within his over thirty-year career. Since the film’s premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, it has received glowing praise, including our review out of TIFF that called Berger’s film “remarkably modern in an otherwise very period accurate film” and “exquisite.” With this acclaim, Berger’s film was rightfully selected as Germany’s entry for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film.
In a conversation within him at the 2022 Middleburg Film Festival, Berger and I discussed his relationship to the source material, creating the tone he wanted the audience to feel as they were watching his version of the story, and the relationship with his lead actor Felix Kammerer (in a impeccable debut performance). We also chatted how the reception he has received for the film so far and what it means for him to be his countries selection for the Oscars.
Ryan McQuade: Making a movie like this must have been a long process. Let’s start with the novel first. When did you first read it and what spoke to you when you first read it, probably many years ago?
Edward Berger: Well, I was probably 14, 15-years-old when I first read it and then again in my early 20s. So, I read it twice, and then again for adapting the film three years ago I read it a couple times again and kept rereading and marking it up. You should see my copy. It’s so colorful, marked with different colors and Post-its inside, and it’s still the same copy from when I was 14.
Edward Berger: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting because the book was obviously written before the Second World War, but especially with the knowledge of the Second World War and with the history that is in my DNA, the heritage, it just has a profound impact for the… And it sort of always brings back the shame or the guilt that came with those two wars and the sense of responsibility towards history. It’s just so ingrained in me, the book, that when Malte, the producer called me and said, “What do you think, is this a good idea to make this movie?” I immediately thought, well, it’s been sitting there in my whole life and longer and I didn’t think about it, absolutely we have to do it.
RM: So you go from the book to then writing the screenplay with your collaborators. When you’re approaching telling this story, how do you try to start separating your adaptation from the previous ones that we’ve seen before?
EB: Great question. So, the 1970 version, I never saw. Just because I was told it isn’t very good.
RM: You’re not wrong. (both laugh)
EB: But the 1930s version, obviously I saw when I was a kid once or twice, and then again before adapting or while adapting, and actually had to put the script away for two weeks, because suddenly you’re like, “Oh, it’s a brilliant film, why am I making it? He did this scene already, and he did this scene. It’s already there.” And then I needed those two weeks to get the movie again out of my system and have the confidence again in a new version, and also, I never thought I wanted to go back to the movie. We always thought let’s go back to the book that is, and especially the feeling in the book, because the book was really interesting.
It’s kind of a report, and to have that feeling of a report, and it’s not really super dramatically, and to have the essence of the book that is a character who basically loses his innocence and becomes a war machine, a killing machine, and a journey towards his death. At first, the death of his soul and the death of everything he believes in, and then to his physical death. So that is the journey of the book. And then it’s just through research, and what’s ingrained in my head is the armistice negotiation. It’s such a big important part of German history, and now our perspective of coming 90 years after the book was written and the Second World War happened, somehow in that DNA, a lot of the information about the Second World War is also, and it felt like it needed to be part of this movie, what came afterwards, to say this was the beginning of a much bigger chaos and horror that was brought into the world. So that differentiates it obviously from the first version, because the Second World War hadn’t happened.
RM: No, for sure. I’ve seen the other versions; I think your film is unlike them because it is a more visceral experience because you’re able to dive into those emotions of war. When you’re crafting this film, how do you as the director start trying to convey the tone early on of what you’re trying to set with this project?
Edward Berger: To the other crew members, you mean?
RM: Yes, the crew members, the cast. I’m curious about the process of that. So that it’s consistent, because as you’re watching it, it does feel very consistent.
EB: Okay, great. I mean, that was the goal. I mean, in this film it’s mostly we spent a lot of time, me and the cinematographer, speaking in theory about what this film, the theoretical philosophical backgrounds. And what the book does so well, that it puts you somehow in Paul’s shoes, the audience, and yet keeps a slight distance like a journalist, like a reporter, saying, “This is what happened. You draw your own conclusions.” And somewhere we said, “How can we bring this essence, what makes the book I think so successful, to leave the audience alone, to leave the reader alone and to have the reader do his own interpretation and do his own take on it, and his own bring feeling to it?” And it’s a pretty easy feeling, because when you see young kids slaughtering each other, you’re going to be touched somehow and going to be against it.
But anyway, so the book leaves you alone, and so to bring that, how can we bring that to the film? So that was the main, not to over-manipulate you, to give you a bit of space also with your own emotions, your own decisions of what you take out of the film. That was the north star in a way, the book, the tone of the book and how to put that in the film. That for me and the cameraman, it was always the guiding light was what does Paul feel? And that determined where the camera came. Does he feel small? Does he feel rage? And somehow when you put the camera here, the audience is going to feel a very different thing to when you put it here, or wide. And so that sort of guided it. For every beat in the story, we tried to find that camera position, what does he feel? What is his… And that somehow then tells the story, hopefully.
Most of it was communicated then just practically in terms of storyboards, that we really drew everything. We put it up on a big, I spent about three months with the cinematographer in a room storyboarding everything, trying to be meticulous, taking a shot out, putting another one in, looking at sequence, going through it again. Basically, a film in our heads with the help of the wall. And then you can go, and then you go one shot at a time. Basically, you tell, “Okay, in this shot I need from this crew member that,” and you talk to them. And also, they’re great people, they’re great. The costume designer comes with her research and shows you this and you learn from her. You’re going, “Oh wow, this is great.” The production designer came with a lot of images that suddenly inform the movie.
It’s just we inform each other, but a great guiding light is a storyboard, in terms of how you can impart something or share something with the crew. Another one is, it’s a big theme of the film, is the dehumanization or industrialization of the war and how these kids become killing machines. And that even goes into the music.
I told that to the musician, “Can you find a sound for this, for the killing machine? For becoming a machine? For dying inside?” I think if you’re clear about the themes and what you want to say, then it’s almost a, I don’t want to sound pretentious, but a philosophical discussion, and then everyone understands it.
RM: You talk a lot about these young performers and their vulnerability in turning into killing machines, the soul being sucked out of them, but you also had a relatively unknown as your lead in Felix (Kammerer).
EB: Totally unknown, yeah.
RM: And his performance is very raw for a first-time performer, and we as the audience go through him. What was the dynamic between you and him working through this film as he is your Paul?
EB: His was the first picture I was shown by the wife’s producer. She works in the Burgtheater in Vienna, which is a preeminent theater in Europe, very traditional, big old building like a, I don’t know, 800-year-old theater. And he’s a small part of the ensemble there and he’s just finished drama school, and I think, “Oh, his face looks great, but let’s invite him.” And then he’s also a dancer, or can dance very well and has very elegant, light movements. I felt, at the first casting, I thought he was great, but can he fit into a trench? So, the costume director said, “Let’s put some heavy boots on him next time he comes, let’s put him in a uniform to see how that feels.” And he immediately, he took to it. He sort of invited the costume and thought like, “Oh, this fits me and now I move differently.”
He suddenly became more of the soldier, while preserving the innocence of his fragile soul, because he’s not supposed to be like a buff hunky soldier guy. He’s supposed to be this fragile kid, innocent kid. And also, another important part is I cast a lot of, he was 24 I think when he played this role, I cast a lot of 18-year-olds. I looked at everyone, I see 400, 500 kids and he was the one that just came back to our minds. We invited him four or five times, and in the end, we just knew. I knew it in the beginning somehow, but you want to make sure and test everyone. In the end, he still was to one. After seeing 400, 500, wasting a lot of time basically. But I saw a lot of 18-year-olds, and it’s really interesting, they’re too young. They were just baby. They could play the beginning maybe really well.
RM: But they haven’t seen the life span of the rest of the film
EB: Yeah, I mean he’s 24, he has a little bit of life in him, very little, but a little bit of life. He went to college on his own, he went to drama, he spent four years on his own in a city that he didn’t know. He’s probably had some disappointments, maybe his heart was broken, and you see it in his eyes, and in an 18-year-old, everything’s possible, and you can’t play sitting in the back of the truck having sort of experienced war for four years. They couldn’t do it. He was the perfect age, knowing a little, he’s intelligent.
And then another interesting thing was, so he was never in front of a camera before, and when I did rehearsals for example with him, in a room like this in a hotel in Prague, there’s a scene with the other kids when they meet in front of the school when we see them all for the first time. I wanted to do it in one shot, I didn’t want to cut, so I tried with my iPhone. I’m Felix now and you’re the other guys, and I was with my iPhone here, and actors that have never been in front of a camera that are theater actors, they go anywhere. They don’t have a mark, or they don’t know where the camera, they don’t care about the camera, they just care about the other actors.
And so he acted and stepped in front of the camera the whole time, and then I was like, “Oh, shit. I got to tell him.” And then I just said, “Felix, just make sure you feel me here, I’m right behind you. My iPhone is the camera, and so on the set you’ll see something, just be mindful not to block the others and just be mindful of the camera a little bit.” And immediately, he wanted so much to learn. He was like, “Ah, okay. Got it.” From day one on set, he just was a dancer with the camera. He related to it so much, he knew when to turn to it. He knew how to stand so that the others could shine. It was a true, pure joy, and somehow, but I knew it in the casting because we had tested him so much, so it wasn’t really a risk to take.
RM: As I was watching it, there’s two separate parts. There is everything through Felix’s eyes, the mud, the blood, the despair, and then there is the comfort of these high-ranking officers who are making these decisions off the backs of these boys. What do you think of these power dynamics that are in this film? It felt very relevant. Because I think that those scenes, while they are a reprieve from the war, they’re also saying a lot about the war itself.
EB: Yeah, it’s a little bit of what you say. It’s a little bit of a reprieve, because also probably when you watch only the battles for two hours, at some point you’re like, “Oh, leave me alone.” You probably do already, so just to heighten the power, when you cut to a battle, that it really has an impact and not makes you too numb. And also, but the movie was very much about contrast, about the beauty of nature, the fox in the beginning, the warmth of that, and the destruction of it. The silence and the noise, the bombs that fall, the luxury with the pure hunger, and having nothing and the mud. I mean, they were freezing.
What interests me is also that the one side really doesn’t know anything about the other side. Those are the two parts that you mentioned, and I find that interesting. If one side could really have empathy with the other, they would probably act very differently, and if the mud side could see, could really see behind the lines, they’d probably start a revolution. Which they did then in Russia at that time. So, I don’t know, I like that contrast, and that was very much the intention, of put a lot of contrast into the movie.
RM: How do you feel about the reception of the film so far, particularly from your home country seeing this film and getting picked as the selection for Oscar consideration?
EB: I mean; I don’t know per country. I’m very happy with the way the movie is seen and the way it spreads sort of in different countries in the world, whether it’s in Germany or America or England. I had a very nice encounter yesterday in New York with a woman who basically sat down after the movie with me and said, she was 80, almost 80, and she said, “My father died in Iwo Jima in World War II, and he had a picture of me, who was 15 months old at the time, and my mother,” and he was like 22 or something. And it’s just really moving to meet people like that around the world who are scarred by what came from World War I, still World War I, it’s a hundred years ago, there’s a lot of scars in the world because of it, and World War II, and that somehow, we can start a dialogue over that.
That is just wonderful to experience, that the movie enters a dialogue with a viewer, and everyone in the world has been touched by these wars, and you have some ancestor who was in it, and you have something in you that you carry from these wars. And that’s great to see, how we enter a dialogue, that we’re sitting here, and we can talk about it, and we enter a dialogue about it, and hopefully that helps us come together.
RM: Well, this is a great achievement, and I thank you so much for your time and everything, sir.
EB: Thank you very much. And thank you for the great questions.
All Quiet on the Western Front is currently playing in select theaters and will premiere globally on Netflix October 28.