© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Volker Bertelmann created the score for "All Quiet On The Western Front"


The composer Volker Bertelmann has led many musical lives.


SUMMERS: In the early '90s, he was the keyboardist in a German hip-hop group. In the 2000s, he began to experiment with prepared pianos, adorning the strings with tape and foil, marbles and erasers.


SUMMERS: And for the past decade, he's been scoring films - most recently for "All Quiet On The Western Front," last year's drama about World War I.


VOLKER BERTELMANN: When I saw the film the first time, I was thinking I need an instrument from that time. And then my studio - there was the harmonium of my grand-grandmother (ph) that I refurbished a year before, and it was just, like, sitting there waiting for a job.

SUMMERS: A harmonium - a 19th century organ that uses reeds instead of pipes. Bertelmann did give his great-grandmother's harmonium a job - creating the opening theme for the film.


BERTELLMAN: All the sounds in there are harmonium. Like, the crackling is actually the wooden paddles. You could hear the breathing and the wood working as a machine, and that whole thing is played through a distortion.


SUMMERS: NPR's Robin Hilton sat down with Bertelmann to talk about creating the score, which is nominated for an Oscar this year. They started by talking about the instructions that the movie's director, Edward Berger, gave to Bertelmann.

BERTELLMAN: Edward said to me, please do something that is destroying the pictures that is not, you know, underlining what we already see. We don't need that. We - it's already all there. And then he said, I want to have something for the main protagonist. I want to have that - the feeling from his stomach that he feels always when he's in the trenches. And I want to have a snare drum that is played by somebody who can't play the snare drum (laughter).


BERTELLMAN: So that were the three sentences that he said.

HILTON: (Laughter).

BERTELLMAN: And there was nothing else (laughter).


HILTON: There's this incredible moment in the film where Germany asks France for an armistice. And the French demand a full surrender, and they tell the Germans, you know, you have 72 hours to accept these conditions. And then France says the fighting will continue until Germany has signed. And, you know, what they're essentially saying in that moment is that the human slaughter will continue until you have given us everything. And the piece that you wrote for this incredible moment is - it's just called "72 Hours."


BERTELLMAN: It's actually a lot of war horns. I had a guy coming here, and he's having a huge collection of very old war horns, and - in all sorts of sizes. And we recorded a lot of these war horns that were, you know, doing these (imitating horn). You know, these kind of shouting sounds that are a little bit even, like, yearning or something like that. And underneath, you have just the pulse of the negotiations in a way because time is passing by. They are really - I mean, they want to move onwards, and you can see that the soldiers are stalling. So you can actually see how everybody is getting ready until you hear these sounds of yearning in a way, and you have something that is ticking very slowly and building. And at the same time, you have these elements of horror.


HILTON: I want to get back to those three main notes that you used at the top of the film. It's fairly common for film composers to take a theme and rework it throughout the score. And you do that in some really beautiful ways with "All Quiet On The Western Front." Here's a piece called "Scarf" that completely reimagines those opening notes - those three notes that are really pretty brutal when we first hear them. Here's how you reimagine them later in the film.


BERTELLMAN: I mean, that's, for me, the religious theme, you know, the lost humanity that is, I think, a very religious aspect of the film because - the fact that through being a soldier, you're losing, very quickly, all humanity and everything that you've believed in and that you had beforehand, and you are wishing to come back to that place at some point and get that back. I think this music wanted - I wanted to be in a - maybe in a sort of Bach area - what I feel when I listen to Bach music because it has this very deep sense of existence. In a way, the feeling that you have, maybe, in the morning when you open your eyes and you know that you have another day that you can fill up with things that you love. That is, in a way, something that I think is very spiritual for me personally because then I know I have 12 or 15 hours to do something that I really love and maybe - at least for me, that is. I know that there are many other people who have a different feeling when they wake up, and they are forced through that. But I think there's always the wish, I guess, for everyone who wants to get back to a warm and secure place and having - and doing something that you like.


HILTON: The film ultimately ends with some staggering statistics. One is that after four years of fighting in the trenches that define the battle lines on the Western front, that they'd barely moved at all - you know? - and that 3 million people died there alone just to gain inches - 17 million total in the war. I'm wondering what it meant for you to work on a film like this that sparks so much, you know, just - I don't know, just reflection on just the fragility of life.

BERTELLMAN: In a way - this film is, in a way, already different because it has a different approach because it's the first film that is told from the German side which - you have to, of course, be humble. You know, we have a much different, of course, historical connection to those two world wars because, of course, we brought a lot of pain to other countries. And, you know, there's a lot of - in our culture, we still have this in our DNA, somehow, the feeling of guilt and shame about it. I mean, this spot we are talking about is actually two hours away from my home. I can drive there with a car. So Europe is very close, and it's full of wonderful nations and wonderful countries with different languages. And as my mother said, start with your neighbors. It's much more about, you know, where can we find common ground for peace? And I think it starts with every individual.


SUMMERS: That was composer Volker Bertelmann speaking with NPR's Robin Hilton about the score for "All Quiet On The Western Front." You can hear their whole conversation on NPR's All Songs Considered podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Hilton is a producer and co-host of the popular NPR Music show All Songs Considered.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.