‘All Quiet on the Western Front’: Everything to know about Volker Bertelmann’s Oscar-nominated score

Edward Berger‘s WWI anti-war drama “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a feast for the eyes and ears, which is one of the reasons why it has received nine total Oscar nominations for Netflix. One of those bids is for Volker Bertelmann‘s original score. By design, the composition doesn’t sound like anything else you hear accompanying similar Hollywood war movie spectacles. There’s certainly a bombastic aspect to how that music drives home the brutal battlefield action, but much of the sounds seemingly come from alien worlds rather than the traditional orchestral accompaniment.

For instance, there’s a recurring three-note motif Bertelmann played on his great-grandmother’s period-appropriate 100-year-old harmonium, which you can hear quite vividly on the cue the composer called “Ludwig,” after one of Germany’s most famous composers.

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This theme, used more than 40 times through the film, including 20 times in its purest form, was frequently referred to as “Led Zeppelin,” since it was indeed reminiscent of the rock group famed for their bombastic classics. That theme you can hear quite prominently in “Remains,” the very first cue from the film that you can hear during the film’s stark opening sequence.

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Another rock legend, none other than Neil Young, inspired the nickname for another aspect of the film’s sound, created using medieval war horns. Again, not something you would normally hear on a traditional film score.

Another way the German composer broke away from norms is by using horse hair of violin bows on the piano strings to create detuned string sounds that neither sounded like a straight piano nor any actual strings. Bertelmann’s piano actually received quite a bit of abuse for some of the film’s cues, as he applied gaffer’s tape onto the strings to create more percussive sounds, as well.

And then, there are the “broken” snare drums, played by “somebody who can’t play the snares,” since the composer wanted them to sound “like an eruption” rather than the normal snare sound we normally hear. The rhythmic portion of the score also featured a gran casa – typically a large drum with two heads like a marching drum – which Bertelmann filled with trash, so that every time it was struck, the trash inside the drum would fly around the interior of the drum.

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Of course, all of Bertelmann’s experimentation also included accompaniment by the London Symphony Orchestra. The score was recorded at Air Studios — and at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, no less.

All of these disparate ideas contributed to Bertelmann’s desire (as well as that of many of Berger’s other collaborators on “All Quiet”) to avoid creating a “cliché of a war film,” as he told Gold Derby’s Marcus James Dixon in a recent interview ahead of his Oscar nomination. The composer also spoke about creating the “iconic” three-note theme for the “All Quiet” score.

Bertelmann already won the BAFTA Award for this highly original score, and currently nine of Gold Derby’s Experts have him winning the Oscar on Sunday, March 12. He is a previously Academy Award nominee for composing the score to “Lion” (2016).

You can give the film’s first cue, “Remains,” a listen below:

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