For All Quiet on the Western Front, director Edward Berger wanted the film to be created from a German perspective. He tasked composer Volker Bertelmann with the job of creating a score he’s never done before, giving him few insights into what he wanted for the final cut. Based on the 1928 novel of the same name, the film follows Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a young German soldier who experiences the horrific reality of serving on the front line. Bertelmann wanted to use instruments connected to that time period, so he used a refurbished harmonium passed down from his grandmother.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with All Quiet on the Western Front?
VOLKER BERTELMANN: I think this is the fourth film I’ve done with the director, Edward Berger. In October, I received a phone call from him and he said, “I would love to have you doing this, and can you come to Berlin and watch the movie with me, and then we can discuss what’s going on?”
And so I went to Berlin and saw the whole movie, and we were very briefly talking about it. The film leaves such a strong impression and you can’t really talk so much after a film like that, which I think is great because you also start to discuss that with yourself. What was that? Why am I feeling this? Edward said to me that he wanted to have a score from me that I’ve never done before. That was the first thing he said. The second thing is he wants to have something for Paul Bäumer’s stomach, which is the main protagonist. He wanted to have something destructive in the music and he wanted to have some snares that were played by somebody who can’t play the snares.
DEADLINE: That’s very specific.
BERTELMANN: Yeah, it’s very specific. Honestly, that took me the longest because I mean, I’m used to working with people that know how to play snares. So, I had to find a way of making the snares sound more like an eruption rather than just a snare beat. Then, I took a train back home from Berlin to Dusseldorf, which is a four hours train ride, and I was thinking about how he wants to have something that I’ve never done before. That’s a challenge, and I was thinking about an instrument that I could use, and I had the feeling that it might be an instrument from that time in the 1900s. Even though it may not sound different than today, there would be some connection to that time. I remembered that I had a harmonium, or some people say pump organ, that I refurbished a year ago that I got from my grandmother, and that was standing in her home in the center of Germany in around 1900.
DEADLINE: I can’t get over “the snare played by someone who’s never played the snare before.” How do you achieve that sound?
BERTELMANN: Well, you can take me, I can play a snare but I’m not a snare player. A lot of instruments I’m playing sometimes are very rudimental. But I’m a big fan of both worlds. I’m a fan of a viol player who can play extremely well, and at the same time I’m interested in people that are in a way getting something new and they try out something weird. So, in a way you need to find an approach where you pretend to be somebody who hasn’t played the snare.
I’ve never recorded so many snares before, just to find the tone of it. Do you want to have a metal snare, a wooden snare? Do we want to have something that sounds very high? Do we want something that sounds more military? In the end, it’s a combination of stacking up different snare sounds, but also using a gran cassa with a lot of rubbish on it, so when you hit it, all the rubbish flies up and it falls down and you hear this weird tail of the snare sound.
DEADLINE: How do you balance the score with the explosion and gunshot sound effects happening during the battles?
BERTELMANN: I would say you need something that is kind of undercurrent darkness, like a wave of sounds that you can shape, let’s say an undercurrent tension underneath the explosions, the tanks, the gunfire. But every now and then there are changes in the battle where you have a lot of people shooting, then suddenly somebody runs and you hear just the breath. There is, for example, a position where you can do weird sounds that are shouting or that are yearning in a way. Sounds that are just appearing, like an animal is on the hunt or is even hurt and lying somewhere in the woods waiting for help or something like that.
You have to find ways of placement, and the problem is if you have too long melodies, they will always be interrupted by gunfire and you’d never hear the score completely, and it sounds very unfinished. So, you need different elements that you can variably change in time on the grid because the cut is not always the cut from when you start to when you are finished. By the end of the film you moved certain elements, but in the area where the mixer can actually push the level of it.
DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges for you on this project?
BERTELMANN: The biggest challenge I think was to find music that is is not pathetic and that is not heroic, in a way that actually helps the attitude of a film that is shot out of a German perspective. That helps a little bit to actually release an international film, rather than coloring it with a wrong color or giving it too much… if you are American or English, you can’t do that because you are acting out of a completely different historical background, but we are still in that area where we have responsibility and a lot of shame and guilt because of the things that we brought to other countries. So to actually keep that responsibility in the music and present it in a self-confident way rather than being too shy. That was the biggest challenge.
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