(Center:) Edward Berger (Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images for Netflix), (left and right:) All Quiet On The Western Front (Reiner Bajo)
That old maxim about those who fail to learn from history being doomed to repeat it is partly what inspired Edward Berger to revisit All Quiet On The Western Front. The director’s German-language adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 World War I novel is both brutal and brilliant. In Germany the book is considered a landmark reflection of the country’s role in the Great War, and for Berger taking audiences into Germany’s side of the trenches with German storytellers meant grappling with history, legacy, and loss.
It’s also a sad truth that an anti-war story—and aren’t all honest depictions of war inherently anti-war stories?—will feel timely anytime. Berger and co-writers Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson didn’t tailor their version to comment on a real-world conflict like the one in Ukraine but, unfortunately, it’s appropriately timed. Here Berger, the writer-director behind Jack, All My Loving, and the miniseries Eden, dives deep into his creative process, and what he hopes audiences take away from his version of All Quiet.
All Quiet on the Western Front | Official Trailer | Netflix
The A.V. Club: How did this astonishing adaptation of All Quiet On The Western Front come about?
Edward Berger: About two and a half years ago my producer Malte Grunert called me and asked me, if he could get the rights to this story, if I’d be interested. And it’s the biggest German bestseller of all time. And I read it probably two times: once in my teens and then in my twenties, then obviously many times again now in the process of adaptation. And there had been an American script around. And Malte had read it and it hadn’t been able to get financed or done, I think for obvious reasons. It’s a German book, it’s been made into an American movie once, or even twice with a television movie. And so why do it again? And so when he asked me, what immediately popped into my head was, “Let’s make a German movie out of this. This is a very German story. The time is right to tell this in the German language.” That just felt undeniable in a way.
I grew up [seeing] many American or British films and some of them war films. And those stories always are very different because it’s a hero’s journey. As an American, you can tell a hero’s journey. You can tell a story that has some pride in the end, that has a sense of something was accomplished and something honorable was done. Because America liberated Europe from fascism, Britain was attacked, had to defend themselves. So that generates a generation of filmmakers that is going to make a very different film. In Germany, it’s nothing to be proud of, that part of history. There’s a sense of shame, guilt, horror, terror, responsibility towards history. And so you feel, in that sense, it’s a weight that you grow up with. I inherited it. It’s in my DNA. And that DNA is going to influence every creative decision and hopefully then make a film that is interesting to share with other countries because it’s a different perspective from the American and British war films. It just felt like I wanted to get that out of my system and share it with other countries and tell that story. And to make a specifically German film.
All Quiet On The Western Front
AVC: I’d love to peel back the curtain on your process, first as a screenwriter then as a director. What was adapting this book like as opposed to writing an original piece?
EB: So the book doesn’t have a traditional storyline. It’s really a bunch of anecdotes. The writer, Erich Maria Remarque, had been in war, but he also interviewed a lot of his friends and colleagues and comrades he met in a field hospital. So it’s almost like a reporting event. And that also gives a great sense of distance and doesn’t manipulate the reader so much. The reader has to imbue the story with their own emotion, which makes it all the more powerful. So adapting it, you look at almost very traditionally: I started taking the scenes that really struck me and put them on cards and put them on the table, and then it grew. I had, let’s say, green cards for what’s in the book, and then I had yellow cards for what I had researched, “Oh, this is an interesting event, we could add this.” Slowly, it becomes a big puzzle and a massive table, probably 10 feet long, full of cards. And it grows into a drama and a storyline. And sometimes single lines from the book made a 10-minute sequence. For example, the looking for the battalion that was gassed, the young boys, that was one line in the book. The stealing of the geese or eggs happens once in the book, and I responded to that because I felt food would be so important to these soldiers. And I sort of expanded that and brought it back a second time to close the circle on that. That’s pretty much the process, to slowly build it from scratch.
AVC: The novel being analytical and therefore creating a distance between story and reader begs the question: How do you do that as a filmmaker? Are you calibrating the two extremes of bringing us face to face with the emotion, versus leaving stuff to the imagination?
EB: It is a great question. It’s a total fine line. Because one of my imperatives, one of my biggest motivations to make a film like that is to give the audience a physical, visceral experience. They come out of the theater and go [slumps in chair] they’re exhausted. Like they’ve been there, almost. And you can only get that by putting it very subjectively into the main character’s shoes, so we tried to achieve that. Also, subjectivity very often also means closeness, being close with someone. But whenever we did that, I tried to just take—even five inches further back, just to scoot out a little bit, to leave the audience alone. To make up your own mind, to really think, “Okay, I feel what this guy is feeling.” The north star was always, “What is [main character] Paul Bäumer feeling? Is he feeling sad and lonely, therefore we need to put him in a really wide shot, getting lost in the melee? Or oppressed with the camera right on top of him, in a real close up, looking down on him?” Things like that, really, if you put the camera five centimeters left or right, it really influences how you as an audience respond to the emotion that we’re trying to convey. And so whenever we did that, I always tried to go a little bit further back. To give you just enough space to not overwhelm you. And not to give you the sense that you’re being manipulated into something. At least that was the goal, to find that fine line, to observe while imbuing a sense of physicality into the whole situation.
AVC: Is that always the case for a director? You’re balancing that “subjectivity” with “objectivity,” if those are accurate terms?
EB: Yes. At least, there are films that I love where I feel I’m being overly manipulated. It’s only subjective: now the strings are coming up, the camera is dollying in on the face, and the tears are coming. You’re like, “Oh, come on, leave me alone. I want to do this on my own.” A great film of subjectivity is, for example, Son Of Saul, where the filmmaker [László Nemes] took a radical decision and said, “I’m only going to film this character from behind and only in close-ups.” He could have also shot the film on his face, from the front. And that probably would have been too much, too subjective and would have driven us away. And in that sense, we almost want more. “Show me his face, I want to see his face, what does he feel?” It leaves a hunger for more. That decision to put the camera behind the character is a decision of objectivity, almost. Leaving the audience alone a little bit and not overly manipulating. Also not putting in a whole lot of music is another way to achieve that balance … When a filmmaker has confidence in their audience, I love that.
AVC: When you’re talking about this idea of exactly how many inches away to put the camera, are there multiple takes, trying different things? I imagine that’s too difficult with an action-packed movie.
EB: Yeah, the battle scenes are really meticulously planned. We storyboarded them meticulously months in advance. I probably spent three months in a room with the DP [James Friend] drawing every single frame. And when you look at the film now and you put the storyboard next to it, you’d be surprised, it’s literally the same thing. Maybe one shot is dropped or shorter than we expected or swapped around, but otherwise it’s exactly the same thing. And that’s really fascinating to me how good planning sort of pays off. If I do different things on a movie and I’m doing a different take, then it’s probably because in the first take something was wrong and we decided it didn’t work. Put on a wider lens, go a bit further away, then that’s probably it. And we keep doing that until it’s right. So it’s not trial and error, it’s trying to get the one perfect version right.
AVC: What do you hope this film accomplishes? I’m thinking, of course, about the fact that this story is as timeless as ever in 2022. How much of art in general, and All Quiet in particular, is about getting us to process reality? And how much of it is educational?
EB: Good question. I think, unfortunately, that this type of movie is always relevant. Even now we have a very unfortunate, timely relevance with Ukraine that we couldn’t foresee. But we had war 10 years ago and we’ll have it again in 10 years, unfortunately, so that subject matter somehow never gets old. But educational, I’m not sure. I don’t want to educate, I’m just a filmmaker. I tell stories and then you ideally draw your own conclusion and take it home and everyone’s going to be different. But a big sense of it is what I said earlier: to get it out of my system and or talk about this, the heritage that you inherit, the DNA that you have from your great-great-grandfathers. And we all have that. America has a different burden to carry than Germany, we have that special burden. I feel especially equipped to talk about this story! [Laughs] So it was good to be able to make this film.
But also, just in terms of relevance, another reason—two and a half years ago when we started, there was a rising sense of nationalism, of patriotism. The United States’ politics with [Donald] Trump, Brexit, [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary, neo-fascist regimes being elected all over Europe. Suddenly the populace is questioning institutions like the EU that brought us peace for 70 years. Europe is a continent of war, it’s neighboring countries too close together, there’s competition and humiliation and they’ve fought. The EU is an institution that brings us together, and I really believe in it. And suddenly you have populists who say, “We don’t need it, we are our own country, we’re stronger than the rest. There’s pride here and we don’t want to talk to others.” And to me, that type of language—you feel it on the streets, if you see it on television, people suddenly repeat it and become more aggressive, more nationalist and xenophobic. And we felt like, this is the time to make this movie in German. It felt very resonant of how it was 100 years ago. It felt like, “Listen guys, this is what led us 100 years ago. Let’s just be careful.” This was already two and a half years ago, and now see what happens in Ukraine. It wasn’t really and isn’t really farfetched.
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