Edward Berger • Director of All Quiet on the Western Front
“What we associate with the two wars is shame, grief, destruction and guilt; I wanted to make a film out of this heritage”
by Teresa Vena
- We chatted to the German director about his Netflix-financed adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s bestseller, also selected as his country’s Oscars submission
After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, All Quiet on the Western Front [+see also:
interview: Edward Berger
film profile] has now been presented at the Zurich Film Festival. The Netflix production is the new feature by German director Edward Berger, and the first adaptation from a German perspective of Erich Maria Remarque's eponymous novel about the atrocities of World War I. We spoke to the helmer about his motivation for making the film and his personal approach to the topic.
Cineuropa: Why was it important for you to make this film?
Edward Berger: There were several reasons. First, I wanted to make a war film that was different from US war films. I like them and really enjoy watching them, but I have the impression they always tell the same stories – stories of heroes. From the American perspective, it might seem like a valid approach, but from the German perspective, it's different. What we associate with the two wars is shame, grief, destruction and especially guilt; I wanted to make a film out of this heritage. And it was clear that it would look and feel different from what we are used to. That heritage doesn’t call for a hero’s journey; it would be impossible for me to tell that story. Secondly, it was my producer Malte Grunert who asked me if I was interested in making an adaptation. I read the novel in my youth, and it had stayed with me ever since. And finally, I often speak about my plans with my family. As soon as I mentioned the title, my daughter reacted. She said she had just read the novel at school, that she had been moved to tears by it and that I absolutely had to make this film. For me, it was a confirmation that the novel hasn't lost any of its impact.
In the current situation, the film takes on additional relevance. How do you feel about it?
Of course, this was neither foreseen nor desired. When I started the project two-and-a-half years ago, I was motivated by my feeling that a growing sense of nationalism was spreading in Europe. Look at Hungary or France, England or even Germany. The film was born of this mood. Now you see where demagogy and propaganda can lead: look at the young people in Russia who are going to war, thinking it is legitimate. And sure, now war seems closer, but unfortunately, we always have war somewhere in the world. The topic is always relevant.
Was it difficult to find funding for the film? How did the collaboration with Netflix come about?
It was very difficult to finance the film, because it's not a cheap production. Netflix really cared about the movie from the beginning. They just wanted to have it, release it and support it all the way. That's a very nice feeling to have, to feel that sense of care. That's why we decided to make the film with Netflix. I couldn’t be happier with that decision, because the support was not an empty promise. And we always had incredible creative freedom.
How did you wish to differentiate yourself from the other two film adaptations and from the novel itself?
Firstly, this is the first adaptation from a German novel with German actors. Secondly, almost 100 years have now passed since the book was published. We have a different perspective on the war today. For people back then, the war was current affairs. In the meantime, for us, World War II, with its unimaginable crimes, overshadowed World War I. That heritage informed every creative decision when making the film. That's why we also introduced a new thread with the figure of Matthias Erzberger, played by Daniel Brühl. Erzberger represents a well-known moment in German history. The nationalists later blamed Erzberger for signing away the peace: they accused him of treason and assassinated him. By spreading these lies, they laid the foundations for starting the next war. Lies are at the heart of these conflicts, and that’s what also scares me about the lies of today.
How did you find Felix Kammerer for the role of the young soldier?
We held auditions for three months and saw a few hundred young people, but we always came back to Felix, whom we had seen first. He is an actor at the Burgtheater in Vienna. We wanted someone who was new, who wasn't yet burdened by or associated with other roles. That would allow us to portray the innocence of the character in a believable way. Moreover, I especially liked the fact that he has a somewhat old-fashioned face.
You often use a handheld camera aesthetic alternating with spectacular bird's-eye shots. What was important for the visual concept?
We were guided by the main character. The camera had to express what was in his gut; it had to adopt his perspective. We wanted the audience to feel what he was feeling. But then again, I also wanted to keep a slight distance and take on the role of an observer. It almost sounds like a contradiction, but it is a fine line to walk.
Now that the film has been selected as the German Oscar entry, was it something you were expecting?
I was pleased, of course. It means that the film will get a wider reach. Many people will get to see it, also in the USA. But it’s just the first hurdle on a long road.
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