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.
All Quiet on the Western Front received nine Oscar nominations for this year’s Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. Additional honors include nominations for Cinematography (James Friend), International Feature Film (Germany), Makeup & Hairstyling, Music/Original Score (Volker Bertelmann), Production Design, Sound (Viktor Prášil, Frank Kruse, Markus Stemler, Lars Ginzel and Stefan Korte), Visual Effects (Frank Petzold, Viktor Müller, Markus Frank and Kamil Jafar), and Writing/Adapted Screenplay.
Sven Budelmann edited the film adaptation of the novel, and wanted to distinguish this project from previous features by exploring the realism of the first World War through a documentary-style portrayal. The film’s score by Volker Bertelmann reflects the characters’ emotional state without overpowering the visuals.
Budelmann works as a freelance editor and has his own studio in Berlin. He used 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,” he explains. “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.”
Principal photography started in the Czech Republic in February of 2021, which was a peak time in the COVID pandemic.
“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 Budelmann began working on the director’s cut. In this pass, Berger wanted to ensure that it included all of his favorite takes.
“In July, we had a first version, which was only five minutes longer than the final cut,” says Budelmann. “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,” he continues. “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.”
While the film needed to meet the demands of the book and the two film adaptations that already existed, Budelmann says taking a new, modern look from a German point of view — without heroes or glory — is what drew his interest.
“Simply — and unadorned — show of the sheer brutality of war in a maximally-realistic way, almost like a documentary,” he says of his goal.
The film’s many battles were challenging, and Budelmann says he spent a lot of time exposed to the powerful and bloody images of war.
“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.”
He points to the crater scene, when Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) stabs a French soldier and then tries to save him.
“The raw material was hard to bear,” he recalls. “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 and balance between violence and moments of silence was more challenging.
“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.”
The film’s soundtrack also plays a strong part in the telling of the war story.
“Sound is always very important to me in my work, but on this project, even more so than usual,” says Budelmann. “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.”
Budelmann also has high praise for composer Volker Bertelmann (pictured above).
“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.”
Production sound mixer Viktor Prasil
Viktor Prasil served as the film’s production sound mixer and employed a range of recorders that included the Aaton Cantar X3; Sound Devices 688 and MixPre-10 II; and Sony PCM-D50. Microphones included DPA 6061 and 4061 lavaliers, while boom mics included Schoeps CMIT-5U (primary), MK41 and MK5; Sennheiser MKH60 and MKH416 (both for the gunfire and explosions); and the Holophone H3-D for multichannel audio.
"What was essential to shoot the movie was the preparation,” he recalls. “For this kind of film, you have to plan everything in advance. Once the bombs start going off, it’s too late. So we started prepping many weeks before the shoot. We set up radio mics into the helmets. We found out that the metal army boots are super noisy, so we made 200 pairs of rubber soles. We built an acoustic wall behind which we put trucks with water for scenes in the rain. We also made portable sound-absorbing blankets for the interiors with a long echo.”
In trench and battlefield scenes, each of the main soldiers wore two radio mics — one in their costume and one in their helmet.
“There is a lot of creative work with the sound of the soldiers’ breathing,” Prasil explains. “This particular breathing, roaring and crying draw the viewer right into the action. Helmets were absolutely essential for us to achieve this! We placed Lectrosonics SMDWB transmitters in the helmets, for which we made special pockets in the inside of the helmet, so that if the helmet fell on the ground or the actor took it off, the transmitter would not be visible. As a microphone, we used one of the thinnest and smallest lavalier microphones — the DPA 6061. This one was equipped with wind protection and properly matted to be as unobtrusive as possible. It was also important to find the right spot to place the microphone, because one inch was the difference between making the microphone visible to the camera or making it sound like a bucket.”
Prasil says the team knew from the beginning that they wanted to do a lot of wild tracks.
“We couldn’t record them all ourselves, so we chose scenes from the shooting schedule where we would need an additional sound mixer,” he recalls.
Throughout the entire shoot, they recorded an enormous number of wild tracks with actors, stunts and extras.
“We recorded fighting in the trenches or a hundred extras shouting and running at us on the battlefield or all the picture cars we had. We wanted to deliver as much sound to post production as possible. We knew that some of it would have been difficult to record again or even not possible at all. It was over 40GBs of edited audio files in mono, stereo and five-channel. Some of them at 192kH/32dB. Plus, (director) Edward Berger has a huge passion for sound and he helped us a lot. He directed the extras, and even did the Foleys himself. His contribution to the sound was huge.”
Sound designer Frank Kruse
According to sound designer Frank Kruse, work on All Quiet on the Western Front began with the script and research of the sounds of World War I.
“Since this was the first real industrialized war, we wanted to find a sound that would also represent the industrial ‘war machine’ that was manufacturing an endless stream of bombs, grenades and metal machinery while young soldiers were turned into ‘expendable’ killing machines,” he recalls.
Since mud, dirt, the wet and cold was omnipresent at the front, the team wanted to employ metaphorical sound to heighten the moments of fear while staying away from synthetic sounds.
“We recorded contact and protected regular mics being dragged though dirt and soil at high sample rates, which were then pitched down and turned into an extreme close-up sound,” says Kruse. “It should feel as if your head would be pulled underground, with the earth rubbing against your eardrums. The recordings were turned into a surround layer and panned to cycle around the cinema as Atmos objects, as an element of stress and overwhelming confusion. You can hear this in the opening battle scene, when Heinrich the soldier is behind the tree stump and the background battle is blurred out.”
He also points to the recycling of the uniforms sequence in which an abstract throbbing and pounding is heard beneath the sound of the sewing machines.
“We worked closely with the composer and picture editor to refine the timing of the images in order to create this transition, which we wanted to borderline between sound effects and music when over the close-up of the sewing machine. The sound of the needle turns into the sound of machine gun fire and that turns into the chain drive of the truck…I sent layouts to picture editorial as AAFs so our editor [could] move elements around easier in Media Composer.”
Another interesting sequence that was inspired by their research involved the nighttime bunker collapse.
“Since there are almost no actual recordings of that time, written letters from soldiers describing the sounds and terror at the front were of great help. The descriptions of grenades and explosions, down to the sounds of dying horses and de-composing bodies left between the fronts were so much more emotional than any scientifically-correct sound would have been.”
In the nighttime scene, where Paul and Kropp are on guard, audiences hear an ambiences made from metal dangling in the wind and distant screams of horses that echo across the battlefield.
“We prepped a lot of abstract reverb and echoes in sound editorial,” Kruse explains. "The sequence has an extremely high dynamic range until the bunker collapses, but I have theatrical speakers in my studio (Meyer Sound Acheron series), which enable a high dynamic range without unwanted compression or distortion, so the whole track-lay translated very well to the mixing stage to give Lars (Ginzel) a good starting point. We usually have our version of EQ, compression, reverb and panning applied during editorial to give Lars a good starting point for object panning. We have worked together as a team many times, so there was a good workflow in place. We knew about each other’s way of working.”
Sound designer Markus Stemler
According to sound designer Markus Stemler, one of the film’s more challenging scenes takes place in the middle of the film, when the German troops attempt to storm the French trenches and then get surprised by French tanks.
“WW1 really was a revolution in terms of military technology,” says Stemler. “Tanks and flamethrowers saw the battlefield for the first time. They still might have had lots of technical issues, but their psychological impact on the enemy alone was just enormous. It was important to mirror that aspect into the sonic appearance of these weapons and make them sound highly threatening from the soldiers’ subjective point of view. We prioritized emotional reality over perfect historical accuracy, so to speak. It felt appropriate for certain moments, while in other areas, a lot of focus was put on authenticity. The Foley team at Studio Warns, for example, was able to use the original uniforms that the costume department had generously provided for them.”
He credits production sound mixer Viktor Prasil with getting fantastic recordings of both the flamethrowers and tanks on-set.
“We already had some great-sound material to start with. For the tanks, we then recorded additional heavy-metal elements in our warehouse to use as a layer on top of the engines. It helped pointing out their extreme armored housing that could easily stand bullet hits and also add a strong sense of weight for when they cross the trenches, with terrified soldiers below them.”
For all these recordings, Stemler says he went with a simple mono setup, using a Sennheiser MKH8050 or Schoeps MK41, and a SoundDevices MixPre running at high sample rate.
“It is most important for me that the equipment is set up very quickly, lightweight and solid so you can go for spontaneous ideas without much hassle.”
Re-recording mixer Lars Ginzel
Lars Ginzel served as the film’s re-recording mixer and says he wanted to point the attention towards one of the quiet scenes in the film.
“In fact, it’s the moment after Paul get’s stabbed in the back right after the ceasefire came into force. We hear how the battle activity dies away and how the outside becomes more and more still, while the French soldier walks out of the bunker. Paul is left alone in the dark with the creaking of the wooden structure around him and the music starts. Then, when he walks up the stairs, wounded and with little to no strength left, we gradually lose the steps as they become less present at first, so there is a brief moment of just music while Paul is climbing the last steps and stepping outside.
“When Paul and the camera step outside the bunker we start to hear his breath again. Low, but up close, and the crackling of a near by fire, and a gentle breeze of wind is starting. There is a lot of movement in that little wind, and it adds a lot of detail to the particles we see in the image. It’s a very peaceful moment, like it should be. And in my opinion all these nuanced movements of the different layers of wind sounds are key to creating this impression and to really make the audience feel the fresh air, after having been in the bunker and all the fighting and battles before.”
The mix took place at The Post Republic in Berlin, and even though the whole film was mixed within Avid’s ProTools, Ginzel says he had a Euphonix/Avid System 5, which was used as a EuCon controller.
“While more modern controllers like the S6 allow for way deeper integration with ProTools, the System 5 still has those fantastic motorized joysticks, which make my work — especially in Dolby Atmos — so much easier. They are just the most intuitive tools for all kinds of panning and movements, and simply the positioning equivalent to motorized faders.”
According to VFX supervisor Frank Petzold, the film’s visuals needed to be “absolutely photoreal, so as not to distract the audience from its literary and cinematic legacy. VFX had to support the acting, set a perfect stage, be historically correct and be as invisible as possible.”
To achieve this look, the visual effects team emphasized using as many photographic elements as possible.
“Our overall VFX approach was to ‘go back to the roots’ and use CG simulations rather as secondary elements, and let photographic footage be our primary material for compositing,” Petzold explains. “We chose to add extra compositing time and use CG-models and simulations only where it was absolutely needed. Photorealism was key.”
Most CG-generated explosions, fire and smoke effects wouldn’t hold up to their requirements, although the thick fog that appears during battle scenes was achieved with camera-matched CG fog. They were able to carefully layer thickness and control the detail, making the battlefield seem both endless and claustrophobic at the same time.
“During principle photography, extra time was carved out to do multiple passes per set-up, setting up VFX element stages next to our primary locations to quickly react and collect missing bits for the shot,” he explains. “It’s was a more time-consuming approach, but visually, a very rewarding technique.
All locations and props were 3D scanned and modeled to support the placement of the photographic elements with CG shadows and reflections.”
Additionally, the VFX stage was used on-location for duplicating attacking soldiers, shooting weeks worth of stuntmen on greenscreen treadmills, gun-effects and smoke bombs. The appearance of the first machines of war were handled in 3D animation, as they wanted the machines to come across as gigantic creatures.
“As some of the close-up tanks were separately shot with SFX support, 3D animation was used to control the timing of the tank fleet as they break through the fog,” Petzold explains. “To react to changes in contrast during the grade, a lot of shots were rendered in multiple versions to be able to do ‘live’ mixing during the final color grade.”
Visual effects also contributed to historically-accurate sets, as well as helped set the mood via environmental additions, such as snow, weather, heavy smoke clouds and cold breath. Eerie matte-paintings were also used for establishing shots.
“UPP, Prague was chosen to work on most of the heavy lifting — complex and long shots for the battles,” he recalls. “UPP does fantastic photorealism and was also able to go back to the stage to add bespoke elements, adding to the authenticity.”
Not surprising, the battles were the film’s most challenging, as they often consisted of extremely long and immersive takes, and required layering of CG throughout the depth of the never-ending landscape.
“At the same time, we had to deal with a lot of interactive SFX effects with the actors. Debris had to bounce off of the actors, and wounds and fire blend into their performance. We knew that an unusual amount of rotoscoping was needed to be able to really be free and creative in compositing to find the rhythm of war.”