Erich Maria Remarque‘s All Quiet on the Western Front has been adapted multiple times, including an Oscar-winning film directed by Lewis Milestone. Approaching a modern adaptation of the book seems like a daunting task, especially when it will show the brutality and horrors of war, as described by editor Sven Budelmann:
“In Germany, it’s a special book because it’s one of the most important. As Germans, we grew up with the guilt and shame of the two world wars that Germany started. In school, everyone has to read the book by Erich Maria Remarque. Of course, we wanted to meet the demands of the book and existing film adaptations, but what entrusted me was that we are going to make a modern adaptation from a German point of view, which means that it’s from the perspective of the losers. There are no heroes and no glory. We just wanted to simply show the brutality of war and this in a most authentic and realistic way, like a documentary.”
That documentary approach not only fed the edit but the shoot of the film:
“All the scenes are shot that way. It always felt like I was watching a documentary, especially with how intense the battle scenes are. That aspect was challenging because I spent a lot of time watching footage of people screaming and shooting at each other, even if I wasn’t around during the shoot. When I saw the film at the premiere, I realized how violent it was. While editing it, I didn’t realize how violent it was going to be on screen. Edward Berger‘s approach was always to do the film with as much realism as possible and wanted the raw material to look as realistic as possible because we wanted to use as few visual effects as possible. This helps the actors in their performances because they need to feel like they’re in the heart of the battle, and it certainly was that way. Our cinematographer told me it was like war, even behind the camera. Everything felt so real that I felt so bad for hours after the film. But this is exactly what we wanted to create. We wanted to make it a tangible experience for the audience.”
Budelmann has worked with director Edward Berger for almost twenty years, having collaborated with him many times on commercials, films, and television series. The editor praised Berger’s vision for the movie, stating that “he is well prepared, and we share the same passion for perfection, which might sound a bit nerdy. But I like to work in detail, working out the sound design and everything in the edit. Sometimes not everything we do works, and it may seem boring for some, but Edward is always keen on knowing what is going on and wants to push it further by questioning unique elements in the cut. This helps me to look at the scene from another perspective. When you watched it several times, you don’t get that approach, but when someone is saying, “Okay, let’s watch from this perspective, what if we change this,” then you can start with a new approach, which is always incredibly helpful”
One of the newer additions to the film is a parallel storyline in which German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) begins armistice talks with the Allied powers, which was not in Remarque’s book. In trying to maintain a sense of continuity with Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and Erzberger’s stories, Budelmann said it was more difficult to figure out how they were going to introduce the character in the film:
“We played with Daniel Brühl’s introduction quite a bit. When the right moment will be to introduce this extra element was something we were trying to figure out. We have the battles, the friends, and this extra element of Erzberger. We had cut a scene between him and General Friedrichs and decided to leave out that part of the dialogue in the final cut. So we just see a car with a guy with a black hat in the back and a military guy in the front, and they don’t seem to like each other. That’s what we left from the introduction scene.”
One of the bigger challenges Budelmann undertook throughout the film was how to successfully balance out moments of silence and the film’s gritty and violent scenes:
“A year before principal photography, I had a lot of talks with Edward, and I engaged him in conversations about other films, tonality, and music, to get an idea of which direction we are going. We cut a mood trailer for this film, where you make a trailer to create a feeling. Instead of war images, we used images of beautiful nature and underscored them with a destructive, increasing score. The tension created in this combination of violence and beauty was so intense. This is something that we wanted to keep in the movie.
The element of nature wasn’t in the script, but we knew that this was something that we wanted to keep. Our cinematographer James Friend went into the forests of the Czech Republic days before production started to shoot beautiful images, and we had tons of footage. We used these shots as a breathing space between these intense war scenes to create distance. This was a wonderful element to use to balance out the violence and silent moments.”
All Quiet on the Western Front is now available to stream on Netflix.
[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]