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How the 'All Quiet on the Western Front' Composer Scores the Soldier's Musical Theme

Composing music for a war movie can be a minefield, IMHO. Too much orchestral oomph—all soaring strings and booming bass—and you can quickly get into sentimentality. Too small and minimalist, and the explosion on the screen will overwhelm your music. Plus, there’s the familiar danger that echoes the grand, epic soundtracks of past war movies.

So, when director Edward Berg asked his regular composer Volker Bateman to score his anti-war film Drama All Quiet on the Western Front , he told him to break all the rules.

“I said, ‘I want something different, something we’ve never heard of before,'” Berger said, “and then, this is pretty much the most important thing: I said, ‘I want you to destroy the image on the screen. Not embellished or sentimental. [I want] a voice that feels like it’s coming from [the main character] Paul Bäumer’s stomach. I want a voice of fear, hate, anger , how a soldier feels when he has to kill to survive.”

“Something different” is almost Batemann’s MO German pianist recorded and performed under the name Hauschka, a newcomer to Berlin’s indie electronic scene One of the pioneering experimental musicians, and quietly began to change the sound of Hollywood movies. Others from that milieu include Oscar-winning composer Hildur Gudnadóttir (Joker, Tár ) and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival

, Sicario, The Theory of Everything

), twice Nominated for an Oscar.

Bertelmann is best known for his Oscar-nominated work in Garth Davis’s Lion

and for his work in Francis Lee’s Ammonite

, which was nominated for ASCAP’s Soundtrack of the Year (both co-written with Dustin O’Halloran). In Lion, the composer removes the horns and strings to provide a piano-driven sound that is both emotional and unpredictable. For Ammonite, a small, rarely used chamber orchestra forms the emotional core of the film.

“Coming from the indie scene, I had a different approach to composition,” says Bertelmann. “It’s very intuitively driven, just trying things out and seeing what happens. Like, if I want a bass drum sound, instead of having an orchestra record it, or go through all the recorded bass drum loops to find Appropriate sound, I’ll put contact mics on the wall and bang on them to see if that works.”

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

Felix Kammerer plays Paul Bäumer in Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Courtesy of Reiner Bajo/Netflix

Bertelmann created the iconic three-tone theme via All Quiet Resounding — Thunderous dom-dom-DOM! Sounds like the horn of doom – picking up his grandmother’s old organ.

“When I played it, pressing down on the paddle and using these old panels on the side of my knee, it made this weird woody sound,” he recalls. “You can hear all the technical details in the material of the machine that made the music. Usually, in classical recordings, you try to take them out. I amplified them. I put the mic in the organ, under it, on the wood , everywhere, to capture that sound.”

The result is both old and modern, like a wooden last-century synthesizer, and — when it plays post-war scenes, When the boots and uniforms are stripped from the corpses, thrown into a pile, and trucked away to be cleaned, repaired and distributed to a new batch of cannon fodder recruits – perfectly evoking the dreaded machine of war.

But when intimate emotion is called for, as in the late scene of agony, Baumer (Felix Kammerer) listens slowly as he lies next to a French soldier he brutally stabs He talks die, and the Bertelmann soundtrack can be quiet.

“For that scene, I used this very fragile string theme and recorded them with clarity and purity,” he says. “When Edward heard it, he said it was too emotional and overwhelmed the scene. But I thought we needed that feel, so I put a filter on the whole instrument and just cut off the high end. That made it listen It kind of feels like the music is coming from under the blanket. It’s pent up, but the emotion is still there.”


All Quiet on the Western Front

earned Betelman his second Nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score. Vivien Killilea/Getty Images1245362188

For the battle scenes, Bertelmann worked closely with the film’s sound designer, Frank Kruse, to coordinate his soundtrack with the clatter of machine guns and the loud bang of exploding shells .

“In battle and war scenes, it’s easy for the music to get drowned out by all the sounds of war,” he says, “so we try to find the frequencies and complements of each other’s instruments, rather than compete. Say there’s a blast …that could be the bass drum. So I wouldn’t use the bass in that part, or I’d use a lower, deeper tone below the explosion. Or for the ambush scene, I’d use the specific metallic sound of the gunshots instead of the main rhythm part. “

Bertelmann in the All Quiet score, he said, appeared in the final scene in which the mortally wounded Bäumer crawled out of the ground Look at the sky one last time. For this piece, titled “Making Sense of War,” the composer returns to his three-note themes, but this time for classical orchestral music.

“It sounded a little bit operatic,” he said. “It gave this moment of clarity and pause where we questioned everything we were seeing, and the whole point of [the war].”

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



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