“All Quiet On The Western Front” exceeded all expectations at this weekend’s BAFTA awards, bringing home seven trophies from its record-setting fourteen nominations. The wins included the prestigious Best Film award as well as Best Film Not in the English Language, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, and Sound.
Awards Focus had the pleasure of speaking with BAFTA winners Volker Bertelmann and Markus Stemler for their wins for Original Score and Sound, respectively. The duo dissected their work and the collaboration with director Edward Berger on the acclaimed film.
“These first three notes that come in, that’s actually the war machine sound,” says Bertelmann of his score. “We called it the Led Zeppelin theme because it was so wild and had this kind of rage to it like a heavy metal band so you can actually feel the physical aspect of it.”
For Stemler, he wanted the sound to have an Earthy texture derived from the battlefield. “Some of the weird sounds… are just these really tiny microphones that you drag through soil and earth creating that huge sound at the end,” says Stemler.
The full conversation from the BAFTA winners is available in the embedded video and the conversation is transcribed below (edited for clarity).
Awards Focus: How early do you like to get on board a project and begin writing?
Volker Bertelmann: Well, I came late in the process and that’s not always the case. Sometimes you have films where you come in already in the writing process or even when you get their first script you already begin to develop music. In this case, I was coming in when the film was already very much in good shape. There were already sounds lying in there as examples where I felt they were already so strong and explicit. It was very nice for me to find a music world and to find solutions for the placing because a lot of times in a war movie, let’s face it there is not much place for music specifically in the explosion area and gunfights. That’s all the frequency that music is battling with. You must find elements that stick out in certain moments of silence or whether there is a spot between let’s say a tank and an explosion here. You need some small space where something recognizable is coming out. So, I think that was already setting the path for me.
AF: As for sound, how did you ensure that music and sound effects do not overlap? How were you able to create this sound palate?
Markus Stemler: Well sound wise we are very much tied to the picture. So, we were kind of limited in the way that we can shape things. One aspect of why the sound and score are really working so well together is because quite often we are not approaching the scene in the same way. Sometimes the score is something completely different while the sound concentrates on the full-on battle, you hear all these explosions. Sometimes there are these tiny fragile strings coming in. For me that was why it all worked well because we are kind of doing things in a very opposite way, telling the scene in a completely different way. That creates a nice symbiosis. To me it always felt like that scene where Kat and Paul take shelter in the trench and Kat already jumps on to the machine gun and the war is really at its peak, the music is very gentle there. That’s the way it makes it interesting.
AF: There are moments in the sound design that you will never forget such as TJaden digging a fork in his neck, as well the French soldier Paul kills in the crater gurgling on his own blood. How did you achieve such authentic and disturbing noises?
Stemler: It’s a very intense scene. Even after having seen the film 100 times, it’s still a scene that is very hard to digest. I agree part of it is because the sound is so literal in a way. It was a great effort from the foley team as well. They tried different materials that would really feel like the fork is going through skin. It really is a matter of experimenting. It’s one aspect of that film where it’s not holding back in telling the true face of war. Same with Paul’s fight in the crater. We didn’t want to “pretty” fight anything. We wanted to be bluntly honest. The sound is very intense, I agree.
AF: Volker in your cue “Remains”, you use a swell that is absolutely terrifying. What inspired you when writing this cue?
Bertelmann: I wanted to have a very short segment because if I have a long melody composed it might get destroyed in the middle of it and I can’t really adjust it. Let’s say I need six notes, it is very difficult to adjust. However, if I have three notes, you have just an iconic kind of element that you can actually stretch but you can also play it in a very simple and raw way.
These first three notes that come in, that’s actually the war machine sound. The sound that comes in when we know the machine starts to roll. In a way we called it the Led Zeppelin theme because it was so wild and had this kind of rage to it like a heavy metal band so you can feel the physical aspect of it. At the same time, it does not sound like an ancient war film where you have a lot of war horns that sound much more medieval.
This is the harmonium that I used, and I put it through an amplifier, and I just boosted the bass. It belonged to my grand grandmother at some point in the 1900s. Around 1900 it was standing in our family’s home accompanying old Christian Bach Chorales as an organ. This time I used that for the iconic three note element which when it was approved by the director, who really reacted in a way where I was like “thank god he is so enthusiastic about it, I can use again in other places in the film.” Even the military trumpet player that is trumpeting for the attack, there again is this motive of these three notes. I had a feeling that it’s nice to actually play with one element. This was unintentional but it got to the point where everyone started humming it.
AF: Did you two have a chance to visit the set when possible, to get a feel for the environment in order to inspire your work?
Stemler: We loved to but due to covid restrictions, we fell into the covid trap but normally we would go there with a set but also take the chance to record stuff. But this time it couldn’t happen, which is a shame really. We would have loved to go to the set.
Bertelmann: There is one sound in the film which I found very fascinating that they created by actually dragging microphones through the mud. You can actually hear it on some of the basses.
Stemler: The recording itself is very crunchy and just some earth movement. Then we used that as a starting point to pitching it down and creating a very claustrophobic element that we use when the bunker collapses. There are all these explosions happening around him and kind of translated into the sound of how the shelter around him is falling apart. That sound helped us a lot. Some of the weird sounds, if you think about the making, are just these tiny microphones that you drag through soil and earth creating that huge sound at the end.
AF: Can you both describe your collaboration with Edward on the film?
Bertelmann: We both experienced freedom in working. When you get asked the nicest thing is that when you get asked that is because you have the quality yourself. Then you are always feeling uplifted, and you are doing a great job. Sometimes you get asked for the same thing but it’s not all about you, it can be done by somebody else in a way. However, with Edward, I had the feeling he asked me personally to do my best that I can deliver to the film. Whenever I sent it over and I felt this was my best, the reaction was not negative. It was much more like I totally see where you were going with this. Of course, it’s a back-and-forth collaboration. I believe in the system where you take the good things beforehand then you say, “but could we do this a bit more or can we enhance that?” That’s what his qualities are. He is really encouraging. You get to the limit of what you can do.
Stemler: I can only second it, for the whole sound crew possibly it was our first collaboration with Edward. It’s interesting, if you have worked together before then you do not know exactly how things are going to work out. The process might take longer because you do not have that blind understanding. But Edward is so cool you know, he would just give us very brief one liner such as “think about Das Boot!” It was an idea he sparked when we were approaching the bunker scene. In general, he pushes you in a direction but as Volker said he gives a lot of freedom, and he really appreciates your creative input. That as an artist is the best you can create. There’s a lot of trust, especially the fact that we have not worked together before. It really motivates you.