Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of a young German soldier during World War I, who, along with his comrades, experience first-hand how the initial euphoria of war turns into desperation and fear as they fight for their lives. The feature was directed by Edward Berger and is based on the bestseller of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque.
Sven Budelmann (pictured) edited the film adaptation of the novel, which is Germany’s official submission for the Academy Awards in the Best International Feature Film category. Budelmann wanted to distinguish this project from previous adaptations by minimizing dramatism and exploring the realism of the first World War through documentary-style portrayal. The film features a score by Volker Bertelmann that reflects the characters’ emotional state without overpowering the visuals.
Here, Budelmann shares insight with Post on his work, editing setup and the film’s specific challenges.
Sven, can you talk a bit about your editing setup for this project?
“I work as a freelance editor and have my own studio in Berlin. I use a Mac Studio with the newest Avid Media Composer version installed, a classic three-monitor setup, and a three-speaker LCR setup to work in Dolby ProLogic. The media is stored on a Promise RAID. We also set up a remote system, which mirrors either the desktop monitors or the output from the Avid DNxID box. We started with a lower resolution DNxHD LB, which we replaced with DNxHD SQ after the principal.”
What was the timeframe to complete the edit?
“Principal photography started in the Czech Republic in February 2021 in the middle of a COVID peak. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be close to the set this time due to restrictions, so I worked from Berlin and sent QuickTimes of what I had cut to director Edward Berger every evening. He always wants to be in close contact during shooting and know if everything works out.
“Filming was completed at the end of May and we started working on the director's cut. In this pass, Edward wanted to ensure that we had all his favorite takes in the cut.
“In July, we had a first version, which was only five minutes longer than the final cut. From there, we got deeper and deeper into the details. Edward is extremely focused, and I was inspired by how he always questions things in the cut. I always try to focus on delivering the director's vision. That's why, even before shooting, I wanted to meet him in-person or on the phone and engage him in conversations about existing films, music and tonality. This way, I get a sense of where we are going.
“For me, editing is the most creative part of filmmaking. It's not just about cutting the picture. It's about the whole package: picture, sound and music. Everything influences the tonality and the story. In the editing room, we can work on all these elements at the same time. This is the moment when we explore all possible directions, look for the best performances, change the rhythm, insert invisible split screens to improve timing, replace dialogue for better intonation, and work out the cinematic architecture of the scene. We completed the picture lock by the end of October.”
What were some of the editing challenges this project presented, and how did you approach it?
“When the request for the project came, I was very excited, but also felt a great responsibility. In Germany, we grow up with the guilt and shame of the two world wars that Germany started. In school, teenagers read Erich Maria Remarque's novel to learn about the horrors of war.
“Of course, we wanted to meet the demands of the book and the two film adaptations that already existed. However, what particularly interested me was that we were going to make a new modern version from a German point of view — the loser’s point of view, without heroes or glory. Simply, and unadorned show of the sheer brutality of war in a maximally realistic way, almost like a documentary.”
Compared to some of your past work, how was this unique?
“There were many unique aspects to this movie. The many fight scenes were challenging, of course. I spent a lot of time with the images of screaming, moaning, mud and blood. That certainly leaves traces behind, even if I wasn't aware of it during the work. It was only at the premiere a few weeks ago that I realized how extremely violent the film is, although these were the same scenes I had worked on for months. Even the raw footage looked very real because it was important to Edward to use as little VFX as possible. It helps the actors in their performance, and the scenes develop their full effect already in the camera.
“For example, in the crater scene, when Paul Bäumer stabs a French soldier whom he then tries to save, the raw material was hard to bear. I can genuinely say that I felt bad for hours afterward. You might expect the fight scenes to be the hardest to cut, but they were so extremely well executed that it was fun to cut, if one can say such a thing in this context at all. For example, we have these long tracking shots that look great in their own right. So, you can't really cut that much.
“Finding the right pace, the balance between violence and moments of silence, was more challenging. When is the right time for this? When has the viewer endured enough and needs a break? For example, the nature scenes — they weren't in the script, and our incredible cinematographer James Friend shot the beautiful images in his spare time in the forests of the Czech Republic before the shooting. There was tons of great footage. We used those as a contrast, as a breathing space between the intense war scenes to create distance. Then we tried to get close to the protagonists, so the viewer is drawn directly into the battle all over again.”
How did the soundtrack influence your edit, if at all?
“Sound was another unique aspect. Sound is always very important to me in my work, but on this project, even more so than usual. It makes so much difference. It doesn't just underscore; it also determines sequences' length, structure and dynamics. Image and sound were mutually dependent. We already worked on a detailed sound design in the edit, including basic changes in perceptual perspective and adding effects. The amazing sound crew with sound designer Frank Kruse has further developed these sketches and created this intense soundscape that pulls the audience right into the trench.
“Our composer Volker Bertelmann was a gift. He made us this unique score that creates a perfect balance of dramaturgical support and distance without manipulation. It was a great collaboration and an inspiring experience.”