Home > Reviews > ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – Volker Bertelmann


February 28, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 1929 German-language novel Im Westen Nichts Neues – known in English as All Quiet on the Western Front – by Erich Maria Remarque is one of the most important anti-war novels ever written. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of Remarque’s own experiences fighting in the trenches of western Europe during World War I, and follows a young soldier named Paul Bäumer, who over the course of the book is transformed from an eager and enthusiastic patriot fighting for the glory of the vaterland, into a bitter, broken shell of a man, utterly devastated by the physical and mental anguish of war. It touches on several important themes, ranging from explorations of nationalism and blind patriotism, to the futility of war itself, especially the trench warfare of WWI where literally millions of soldiers, on both sides of the conflict, were slaughtered while trying to gain little more than a few yards of ground. The book was banned and burned in Nazi Germany, naturally, but has since become regarded as a modern classic, and is now one of the most revered pieces of German-language literature.

All Quiet on the Western Front was immediately adapted into a film by Hollywood director Lewis Milestone, which won Best Picture at the Oscars in 1930, but somewhat surprisingly it had not been re-made for the big screen until this version, which is also the first adaptation made by a German filmmaker. Director Edward Berger adapted a screenplay by Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson, and cast unknown Austrian actor Felix Kammerer as Paul, whose committed performance is staggeringly good, intense and emotional and extraordinarily powerful. Kammerer is supported by Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, and Edin Hasanovic as his friends and fellow soldiers on the front lines, while Daniel Brühl plays diplomat Matthias Erzberger, whose negotiations with the French eventually led to the armistice and the end of the war in 1918.

The film is technically outstanding too; the cinematography by James Friend juxtaposes the gut-wrenching realism of life in the trenches with some moments of shocking, poetic beauty. The editing by Sven Budelmann reinforces the madness and chaos of the soldiers’ suicidal runs through no-man’s-land. The production design by Christian M. Goldbeck and Ernestine Hipper again offers maddening juxtaposition between the squalor of the trenches and the opulence of the chateaus where the generals and politicians toy with the lives of their soldiers in relative safety and comfort. The sound design, visual effects, and make-up and hair, are all top notch too. The film has been nominated for nine Oscars, and recently won seven BAFTAs, including Best Picture. It’s difficult to disagree with most of them. The one thing that I do disagree with, however, is the praise for its score, which was written by German composer Volker Bertelmann, and for me came this close to ruining the movie.

Look; I get what Bertelmann was going for. In a recent interview with David Phillips for Awards Daily he outlines his entire thought process. How he was inspired by the film’s opening sequence about how the uniforms of dead soldiers are washed and recycled, and how this translated to war being a dehumanizing machine for its participants. How he used the sound of a 100-year old harmonium that belonged to his grandmother, and then manipulated and distorted that sound to make it seem mechanized and industrial. How he came up with the score’s three-note motif as a way to destabilize and disorient the viewer, to make them feel as uncomfortable as Paul does. How he uses rat-a-tat drum textures at random throughout the score after receiving a request from the director for ‘snares that are played by a drummer that can’t play the snare’.

He also goes into some detail about how, as a German, scoring a war movie is different for him than if he were American or British. He says “When I think about the war, I just think about shame and guilt and about all the things that were happening. When working on a film like this, you don’t want to create music for a hero. I don’t want to create any overt pathos. In America and in England there’s of course a different point of view about the wars, and I totally understand that. That’s a different perspective that is totally deserved”. He talks about abstraction and minimalism, rawness, and how he was influenced by everyone from Arnold Schoenberg to 1980s German industrial punk bands.

On the surface, and conceptually, I have to agree – these are good ideas. War is chaotic and messy and disorienting. It’s violent and horrific and angry and the entire point of the book and the film is to make you feel this – that no human being should have to suffer through this. The problem I have with it is the same problem I have had with other recent massively-lauded scores by people like Hildur Guðnadóttir, Trent Reznor, Mica Levi, and to some extent Jonny Greenwood and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson – and that’s the almost complete lack of musical storytelling, and it’s over-reliance on singular emotions.

We all know that war is hell. The book tells us that, the film is telling us that, the visuals are telling us that, and Bertelmann’s score is telling us that too. It’s all hell, all the time, but there’s no light to counterbalance the darkness. In the same interview with Awards Daily Bertelmann even addresses this issue himself, saying “in order to enjoy the moments where suddenly the sky opens up and you see light and you’re suddenly relieved from the tension, you have to have darkness. No relief can work when you don’t know what the darkness is. You have to go through the mud in a way to actually feel the music in a sense that it’s maybe a religious piece that will relieve you from all the pain. So, it needs both sides.”. He’s absolutely right… which begs the question, why didn’t he do it?

The score for All Quiet on the Western Front basically has three ideas: the massive three-note motif performed on the 100-year old manipulated harmonium, the random snare drums, and everything else, most of which is barely more than electro-acoustic grinding noises interspersed with industrial sound effects. The credits of the film mention the London Contemporary Orchestra and featured performances by piano, viola, cello, violin, and contrabass but, in reality, it’s virtually impossible to discern any of this through the incessant layers of sonic distortion. Watching the film, I could discern no real dramatic reason for when the three-note harmonium motif and the snare drums appear when they do – they are just there, randomly, taking you out of the film with their obnoxiousness every time they crop up.

People have described the three-note harmonium motif as being like a ‘fate theme’ for the unavoidable specter of death creeping up on the protagonists, or some sort of representation of the modern industrial war machine first appearing on the battlefields of World War I, but honestly this feels like someone trying to ascribe meaning and explain something unexplainable. Similarly, the snare drums come in at inexplicable moments, completely unrelated to anything that’s happening on screen, so much so that every time they appeared I was momentarily confused as to what I was hearing, and whether it was score or a sound effect. The snare use obliterated the dramatic tension and ruined the narrative flow of whatever scene they appeared in, every time, which I’m pretty sure was not what the filmmakers intended.

The three-note harmonium motif is, basically, the first thing one hears, in the opening cue “Remains,” and then it plays a prominent role in subsequent cues, notably “Uniform,” “Search Party,” and “No End”. The trio of cues comprising “Tanks,” “War Machine,” and “Retreat,” is the closest the score comes to having a real kinetic action cue, and is probably the only sequence of music in the score that I felt had a truly cinematic quality; the “Last Combat” cue in the finale tries to recapture some of these same ideas, but is not as effective. The way Bertelmann combines the three-note motif with more lyrical string textures in “Retreat” is actually quite interesting, and may be my favorite moment in the score, but the motif itself remains jarringly insistent to the extent that while I was watching the film’s finale and hearing that motif over and over, I actually found myself laughing whenever I heard it. Again, surely not what the filmmakers intended.

Most of the rest of the score is a mass of abstract, angry, dissonant clusters of noise and sound design – groaning and keening string harmonics, wooden creaking sounds, industrial effects, vaguely militaristic percussion rhythms, and the like. Cues like “Buried & Found,” “Dog Tags,” “Ludwig,” “Night Fires,” “Kat,” and others, drone and rattle and clang away for a few minutes, ostensibly being something other than silence, and then fade away. There are brief moments of consonance in the classical strings of cues like “Flares,” “Scarf,” and “Making Sense of War,” and then also in the final two cues, “All Quiet On the Western Front,” and “Paul,” which are appropriately mournful and melancholy.

There’s some softly angelic choral work in “Comrades” and “Bomb Crater,” and some brutalist orchestral textures in “72 Hours” that transpose the three note theme from harmonium to strings. In “Tjaden” Bertelmann takes the three note motif and gives it a flavor of poignancy and regret with some warmer strings and what sounds like a harpsichord, but beyond these fleeting moments recognizable melodic content is negligible, basically zero.

At this point I’ve resigned myself to not having any expectations of identifiably melodic music in a film like this, which is a shame because it’s perfectly possible to have music that is bleak, oppressive, dangerous, and threatening, and which achieves all the musical goals that All Quiet on the Western Front had, with the same musical palette, yet still contains a recognizable thematic identity. Look at what Thomas Newman was able to achieve with his score for 1917, as just one example.

And, basically, that’s your lot. It’s all bleak, all the time, and by being basically nothing but that the music clearly presents an array of missed opportunities. Where’s the music that talks about Paul’s friend Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky, his love for his wife and child, and his desire to return home? Where’s the music that addresses Erzberger and his efforts to secure the armistice, and his famous meeting with French General Foch on the train at Compiègne? There are perhaps some subtle allusions to this material buried deep in the score, but it’s so overwhelmed by the howling noises that it might as well not be there. Ultimately, there’s a lot of deep, meaningful emotional content that could have been explored here, but it’s almost entirely ignored in favor of Bertelmann’s relentlessly grim and obnoxious sonic intrusions.

I have often said that 99% of all film scores work in their film, and the one thing a film composer should never do, under any circumstances, is make their film worse. With All Quiet on the Western Front, Volker Bertelmann comes perilously close to being a part of that 1% and breaking that cardinal rule. As I said, I understand the conceptual thinking behind a lot of the score. I understand why it sounds the way it sounds. I just think that the final execution of these ideas and concepts was remarkably poor, and that when heard in film context the music never achieves any sort of connection with its audience – instead, at times, it intentionally breaks that connection, and ruins scenes that would otherwise have been much more emotionally powerful and dramatically potent.

Buy the All Quiet on the Western Front soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Remains (2:58)
  • Uniform (1:49)
  • Rain & Night (1:21)
  • Flares (1:35)
  • Buried & Found (2:52)
  • Dog Tags (1:28)
  • Ludwig (1:58)
  • Comrades (3:55)
  • Search Party (2:17)
  • 72 Hours (1:19)
  • Tanks (1:46)
  • War Machines (2:03)
  • Retreat (1:46)
  • Bomb Crater (3:40)
  • Night Fires (1:31)
  • Scarf (0:54)
  • Tjaden (1:29)
  • Fear of What is Coming (1:16)
  • Kat (1:11)
  • No End (4:23)
  • Last Combat (4:47)
  • Making Sense of War (2:26)
  • All Quiet On the Western Front (2:39)
  • Paul (1:43)

Running Time: 53 minutes 06 seconds

Netflix Music (2023)

Music composed by Volker Bertelmann. Conducted by Robert Ames. Orchestrations by Robert Ames and J. J. Hathaway. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Volker Bertelmann.

  1. February 28, 2023 at 8:56 am

    This is a terrible score. Most of this work is sound design.

  2. Mark Bagby
    February 28, 2023 at 6:23 pm

    If it were possible to view the film without the score, I’d select that option.

  3. March 1, 2023 at 10:18 am

    I will not ramble on analyzing the function of the score in the film, I will simply refer to a particular scene in which the main character, after the carnage of the first day in the trench, discovers the dismembered corpse of his friend. A muffled version of the three-note main theme, like a subtle lament, accompanies the scene. That alone is enough. Labeling this score as sound design reveals a total misunderstanding of the film director’s vision. The music of this film needed neither elaborate orchestrations, nor self-referential melodies centered on dozens of violins and wind instruments. The nightmarish violence of trench warfare doesn’t need music that screams “listen to how beautiful I sound” and that’s exactly what the director asked for. It was of course one of the reasons the film worked, even if i agree that the album cannot be recommended as a pleasant listening experience. However, i consider Bertelman’s score as a huge success basis on its main purpose as a supporting force of Edward Berger’s film.

    • March 1, 2023 at 1:07 pm

      Please point to the paragraph in the review where I say the film needed elaborate orchestrations, self-referential melodies centered on dozens of violins and wind instruments, and music that screams “listen to how beautiful I sound”. I’ll wait.

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