‘Bardo’ and ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ Could Break the Language Barrier in Sound Design Oscars Categories

The Netflix films from Mexico and Germany have intricate sound design worthy of awards attention

Bardo - All Quiet on the Western Front
"Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths" / "All Quiet on the Western Front" (Netflix)

The Oscars sound category is often the province of big blockbusters, loud superhero movies, musicals and films like “Sound of Metal” where the sound is incorporated into the story. For the most part, it’s not a category where you generally find films that aren’t in English, even though those movies break in every so often: “Roma” in 2018, “Apocalypto” in 2006, “Amelie” in 2001.

This year, though, Netflix has a pair of films that are representing their countries in the Best International Feature Film category but are also noteworthy enough for their sound design to be contenders for Best Sound. This year’s standouts are the German Oscar entry, the brutal but at times lyrical war film “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and the Mexican entry, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s epic fantasia “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.”  

Both are well over two hours long (“All Quiet” clocks in at 2:27 and “Bardo” is 2:40), both are enormous in scale and both have an intricate sound design that is integral to the power of the films.

For “All Quiet on the Western Front,” director Edward Berger turned the first German-language adaptation of the classic antiwar novel into a harrowing trip through the trenches of World War I. The film looks at the machinery of war and spends time with the German high command as they decide over lavish meals where to send young soldiers to die, but its signature scenes are the ones that put the viewer alongside those young men in the mud.

That mud, supervising sound editor Frank Kruse said, was one of the keys to the film. “We shot at the height of COVID, so I knew there was very little chance I could travel to the set and grab as much of the original grit and dirt and sound of a hundred extras in the mud,” he said. “So I had a chat with our production mixer ahead of the shoot and flagged that we would need as much of the original sound as he could grab during the shoot.

“You can redo everything later, but the original sounds of all these bodies moving around with all their gear and with their original energy was a key thing to preserve. And he grabbed a ton of original sound from the extras, the crowds and the vehicles.”

When the sound team began to plan their workflow, added sound editor Markus Stemler, the order of scenes definitely mattered. “My first impression was, ‘Oh, this is a bit of work,’” he said, laughing. “Looking at the schedule ahead, we knew we had to start with the battle scenes, because otherwise we’d never finish.”

For those scenes, Kruse added, the idea was “not to make the film sound too design-y.”

“We tried to keep a certain sense of realism, even though no one really knows what it sounded like out there,” he said. “There are close to zero recordings of it – it’s mostly descriptions from soldiers writing home to their loved ones and trying to write down how the front sounded, what type of grenade had what characteristic, etc. All of those details help to get your imagination going. But at some point, we just decided there’s no way we could make it sound scientifically accurate. It’s really about the emotional impact, so we decided to give the sound work an emotional approach while trying to put in as many details as possible.”

Emotion was also the centerpiece of the complicated sound design of “Bardo,” which spins moments from Iñárritu’s own life into a fantastical, nonlinear narrative that shifts in and out of dreamscapes as it follows a Mexican writer who has been living in Los Angeles for years.

“Alejandro is always looking for the narrative behind the narrative, the stories behind the stories,” said supervising sound editor and sound designer Martin Hernandez, a college friend of Iñárritu’s who has done sound for all of the director’s films.

“He would say, ‘This is how I remember how it sounded, how it tasted, how it felt.’ How do you translate that into a soundtrack for everyone to hear? There are a lot of different ways to approach that memory, so you keep going until you think, ‘OK, this is good.’ But no, that’s just the starting point for the conversation with Alejandro.”

For instance, Hernandez points to a scene in which Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) returns to a Mexico City apartment, pours a glass of mezcal and looks out the window. The sound designer had recorded for 48 straight hours in that apartment to get the room tone and the sounds of the area surrounding it, from street vendors to mariachi bands. But what the viewer hears in that scene isn’t what’s happening outside the window at that moment; instead, “it’s something he remembers from one day in his lifetime.”

Throughout the movie, he added, “Natural sounds have been amended, or different sounds that don’t belong to that place have been added. We experimented with audio references in memories or perceptions, and we added those things throughout the film.

“For Alejandro, sound was kind of the driving force, the backbone of the narrative,” Hernandez said. “In a way, ‘Bardo’ is a concept album – it’s a music-and-sound trip like a ’70s concept album, or maybe Radiohead these days.”