How Quiet the Western Front Composer Scored on Soldier’s Musical Themes – The Hollywood Reporter

Composing music for a war movie, sorry for the metaphor, can be a minefield. Too heavy with the power of the orchestra — all the strings soaring and the background booming — and you can quickly switch to the schmaltz. Too small and minimalist, and explosions on the screen can drown out your music. Plus, there’s the risk of becoming familiar, repeating the epic and epic scores of past war movies.

So when director Edward Berger asked his frequent composer, Volker Bertelmann, to write the music for his antiwar drama. All is quiet on the Western fronthe told him to break all the rules.

“I said, ‘I want something different, something we haven’t heard of before,’” Berger said, “then, and this is almost the most important thing: I say, ‘I am. want you to destroy the images on the screen. Don’t be pretty or mushy.’ [I wanted] a sound that feels like it’s coming from within [lead character] Paul Bäumer’s Stomach. I wanted the sound of fear, hatred, anger, the feeling of a soldier when he has to kill to survive.”

“Something Different” is almost MO by Bertelmann German pianist, who has recorded and performed under the name Hauschka, is part of a team of experimental musicians that have come to the electronic scene independent in Berlin and has quietly begun to change the sound of Hollywood movies. Others from that environment include Oscar-winning composer Hildur Gudnadóttir (waggery, tar) and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrive, Sicario, Theory of Everything), who was twice nominated for an Oscar.

Bertelmann is best known for his Oscar-nominated work on Garth Davis’ Lion and his score for Francis Lee’s ammonite, received an ASCAP nomination for score of the year (both co-written with Dustin O’Halloran). IN Lion, composers removed the trumpet and strings to deliver a piano-driven sound that was emotional but never predictable. Because ammoniteA little used chamber orchestra forms the emotional core of the film.

Bertelmann says: “Coming from an independent background, I have a different approach to composition. “It’s very intuitive, just try something and see what happens. For example, if I wanted a bass drum sound, instead of having an orchestra record or going through all the recorded bass drum loops to find the right sound, I would put the intercom mic on the wall and bang on them. to see if it works.”

Felix Kammerer as Paul Bäumer in Netflix's All Quiet on the Western Front.

Felix Kammerer as Paul Bäumer in Netflix All was quiet on the Western front.

Courtesy of Reiner Bajo / Netflix

Bertelmann created a signature three-tone motif that resonates throughout All quiet – thunder dom-dom-dom! sounds like the trumpet of doom — by picking up grandma’s old harmonica.

“When I was playing it, hitting the paddles and using these old boards on the side with my knees, it made this weird wooden sound,” he recalls. “You can hear all the technical bits from the material of the machine that makes the music. Usually, in a classic recording, you’ll work to get rid of them. I amplify them. I put the microphone inside the harmonium, underneath it, on the wood, everywhere, to capture that sound.”

The result is both old and modern, like a century-old wooden synthesizer, and — as it plays through post-battle scenes, when boots and uniforms are stripped from their bodies, piled up, and transported away. with trucks being washed, repaired and given to a host of new recruits as cannon fodder – perfectly evoking the terrifying war machine.

But when intimate feelings are evoked, such as in a belatedly painful scene where Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) lies next to a French soldier he brutally stabbed, listening to him slowly die, the point Bertelmann’s number may be silent.

“For that scene, I used this very delicate rope motif, capturing them clearly and pure,” he said. “When Edward heard it, he said it was too emotional and overwhelmed the scene. But I thought we needed that feeling, so I put a filter all over the instrumentation, only cutting out the high end. It makes it sound like music coming from underneath the blanket. It was stifled, but the emotion was still flowing.”

All Quiet on the Western Front earned Bertelmann his second Oscar nomination for best original score.

All is quiet on the Western front earned Bertelmann his second Oscar nomination for best original score.

Image Vivien Killilea/Getty

For the fight scenes, Bertelmann worked closely with the film’s sound designer, Frank Kruse, to harmonize his score with the continuous machine gunfire and the gruesome explosion of artillery shells.

“With the fighting and fighting scenes, it was easy for the music to be drowned out by all the war sounds,” he said, “so we tried to find frequencies for each other’s instruments and complement each other. , but not competition. Say there are explosions. It could be a bass drum. So I wouldn’t use bass in that part, or I would even drop the bass deeper, deeper, below the bang. Or for an ambush scene, instead of the main rhythm part, I use the specific metallic sound of gunfire.”

Bertelmann’s favorite music in All quiet The score comes in the final scene, he says, when Bäumer, mortally wounded, climbs out of the ground to take one last look at the sky. For a piece called “Making Sense of War,” the composer returned to his three-tone motif, but this time staged in a classical style.

“Sounds a bit like an opera,” he said. “It brought a moment of clarity and pause where we questioned everything that we saw and what the whole point was. [of war is].”

This story first appeared in the independent February issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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