How the score for 'All Quiet on the Western Front' made a familiar tale surprising : All Songs Considered Composer Volker Bertelmann explains why he wanted to "destroy the film" with his score, how he used a centuries-old instrument for the cause and what it meant as a German to dive deep into this story.

How the score for 'All Quiet on the Western Front' made a familiar tale surprising

How the score for 'All Quiet on the Western Front' made a familiar tale surprising

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Felix Kammerer stars as Paul Bäumer in Edward Berger's 2022 adaptation of All Quiet On The Western Front Netflix hide caption

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In the world of filmmaking, it's nearly impossible to surprise an audience when they've already heard the story before, particularly when that story has been told over and over again for more than a century. That was perhaps the biggest obstacle director Edward Berger faced in his adaptation of the 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, an epic World War I film released late last year on Netflix. How do you make the expected unexpected?

In the end, Berger managed to surprise viewers by bringing out all kinds of previously unconsidered, often minute details in the story. But he also got a substantial lift from the film's score. It was written by composer Volker Bertelmann, an artist known to many for the work he's released over the years under the name Hauschka. For All Quiet, Bertelmann focused on one primary direction: He wanted his score to "destroy the film." In this conversation, he explains why, how he deployed a centuries-old instrument for the cause and what it meant as a German to dive deep into this story.

You can hear the full conversation with the listen link at the top of the page and read edited highlights below.

Interview Highlights

On surprising audiences by 'destroying the film'

[Director] Edward [Berger] said to me, "Please do something that is destroying the pictures," that is not, you know, underlining what we already see. We don't need that. It's already all there. And then he said, "I want to have something for Paul, who is the main protagonist, I want to have that the feeling from his stomach that he feels always when he's in the trenches; and then I want to have a snare drum that is played by somebody who can't play the snare drum." And you prepare the listener and the audience to accept certain spontaneous snare drum hits or something like that.

You are still surprised, but suddenly the music becomes a part of the film and you accept it, which is [what I do] with the performance of a prepared piano as well. You know, when I'm starting, a lot of the people in the audience think, "Oh, what is that? What is he doing?" "Why is it sounding so weird?" And after half an hour, suddenly they're like, "Oh, I'm actually not feeling the weirdness anymore. I'm much more in it." And then at the end, a lot of people are so happy. And I think in our days, I think these surprises, we are longing for those so much because everything is so conformed in a way. We have a lot of things that are very similar. And to find something individual is not so easy to find. And I think to have the chance of doing some risks like that is, for me, such a big gift.

On using — and maniupulating — a harmonium throughout the film

It was a very clear decision. When I saw the film the first time, I was thinking, I need an instrument from that time. And in my studio there was the harmonium of my great grandmother that I refurbished a year before, and it was just like sitting there waiting for a job. And so I [thought] that could be an instrument for the opening because the whole opening is about the war machinery as a kind of production in a way, very cold in a way. But at the same time, it's very precisely filmed. And there's no words for the first 10 minutes [of the film]. But you know exactly what it's all about and the [song] gets faster and faster.

But it's not the music. It's actually the the machines, the elements of the machines are taking over. And we matched them in a way at some point that the sound effects and the music are fitting, tuning-wise. But I mean, with prepared piano, when you work on that so intensively like I do, you always consider every noise and every randomness that is happening inside of the piano as a part of the music. In this case, I actually put overall eight microphones on the harmonium. I put three inside of the harmonium so you could hear the breathing and the wood working as a machine, so that I have these mechanical noises, and I recorded them individually as well, so I could actually mute them and take them out and then, you know, bring them back in. The crackling [sound in the film] is actually the wooden paddles [of the harmonium]. Also the high notes, that is also a higher harmonium, but the low notes are actually a double register on the harmonium and that whole thing is played through distortion.

Composer Volker Bertelmann with the harmonium he used to score All Quiet on the Western Front. Netflix hide caption

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Composer Volker Bertelmann with the harmonium he used to score All Quiet on the Western Front.


On the surprising shorthand he and director Edward Berger used

We actually named the two [main musical] elements. The one from the beginning [of the film] was our "Led Zeppelin" theme. And [the second recurring theme] was our "Bob Dylan." Edward always told me, "Can you do this Led Zeppelin here as well?" Then I knew exactly — you're actually having suddenly a language that is straightaway. Just hear a name of an artist that you like and you just straightaway know, okay, this theme. So let's use that.

On what it meant, as a German, to work on the film

We brought a lot of pain to other countries. And we still have this in our DNA. The feeling of guilt and shame about it. And [this film] has nothing to do with heroism. This spot we are talking about [in the film] is actually two hours away from my home. And Europe is very close and it's full of wonderful nations and wonderful countries with different languages. And, I mean, I love going to every country that speaks a different language, where I can learn about myself and that is diverse and where the foreignness of things are so helpful to discover new things on myself. So it helped me think about my own life and about embracing other people.

I think the main topic for me is actually that we learn more about others and accept them and and let them live how they want to live rather than putting something on top of them as a rule. Those 17-million who died [in the war] was just coming from lies. And even in my everyday life when I'm seeing other people that are different than me, I have to understand why they are different. And it's not about me going right out of the house and complaining and telling them what I hate about them, you know? So that's, in a way, the beginning, as my mother said, "Start with your neighbors." It's much more about where can we find a common ground for peace? And I think it starts with every individual.