How ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ Composer Created Those ‘Disturbing’ Sounds of War

TheWrap magazine: Volker Bertelmann says he used drums and harmoniums to make military sounds like shooting bullets


This story about “All Quiet on the Western Front” composer Volker Bertelmann first appeared in “The Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The new German-language version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is one of the most harrowing and brutal war movies (or anti-war movies) ever made, and the music has a lot to do with that. At times, brutally sharp drum beats come out of nowhere and seem to assault the audience; other times, three enormous, foreboding chords blast in and linger, an unholy Dies Irae hanging in the air.

The film’s director, Edward Berger, has said that he wanted music that would attack the images on screen — and to provide that attack, he turned to his longtime collaborator, Volker Bertelmann (who often composes under the name Hauschka). Bertelmann has scored three films for Berger, as well as five episodes of “Patrick Melrose” and three of “Your Honor.”

When the director approached him about “All Quiet,” Bertelmann deliberately didn’t go back to the 1929 World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, which he’d last read in school at the age of 18. “It’s a world classic, and the (1930) film is also a very powerful film,” he said. “But I didn’t re-read the book. I wanted to take the film as a new piece of art.” He watched a rough cut of the new “All Quiet” in a Berlin cinema, but the conversation afterwards with Berger was minimal. “It reminded me a little bit of a conversation with my father that is sometimes just two sentences long,” he said, laughing.

But Berger was more verbose during the discussions that led to the score’s assaultive drumbeats. “He said to me, ‘I don’t want to have a normal score in the film,’” Bertelmann said. “So when we were talking about military sounds, of course we talked about snare drums. But we wanted to find something that is not like this rolling snare in a marching band. We wanted the sound of a bullet shot or something disturbing. It’s interesting to say, ‘All we’re giving you is this snare drum. We’re taking everything else away.’ That is unsettling, and once you get used to it, it is almost a character in the film.”

For the score’s other signature sound, the massive chords that hang in the air, Bertelmann turned to an old harmonium, a type of pump organ that was once owned by his great-grandmother. He had it refurbished long ago but hadn’t used it, but for “All Quiet” he ran it through a stack of distorted Marshall amplifiers and boosted the bass. “When I played it, I just felt like, maybe this is the one,” said Bertelmann, who deliberately retained operating sounds like his knees pressing against the instrument. I even put microphones inside the harmonium to amplify the mechanical sounds. I think that made it very much like a moaning ship, and I loved the sound so much.”

When he sent an mp3 of the theme to Berger, the director’s response was immediate: “That’s Led Zeppelin!”

Bertelmann tried to stay out of the way of other scenes, such as a member of the German high command eating dinner while listening to opera, or the playing of a Bach piano piece. But he leaned in to the movie’s frequent pauses to linger on the bucolic countryside where the brutal war was taking place.

“I was born in an area that is exactly like the landscape in the film, where you have a lot of woods and fields and a lot of fog in the morning,” he said. “It looks sometimes like a fairytale landscape, and it has a very deep impact on your soul and on your nature as a human being. Every time I saw it, it reminded me of home, and I had the feeling that this is the only thing that is left for those guys.

“So I wanted to find music to express this kind of longing. Every now and then there was light shining through the trees, and that could help you to accept the length of the torture, in a way. And that’s what I helped with, I think, with the music as well.”

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

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Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap