All Quiet on the Western Front (in German, Im Westen nichts Neues, literally translated 'In the West Nothing New') is a 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the First World War. The fictional story of a group of German soldiers on the western front has been adapted a number of times for film and television since – notably in 1930 and 1979 – and is the subject of a 2022 adaptation by Netflix.


Bethany Wyatt spoke with actor and executive producer Daniel Brühl (who plays Matthias Erzberger, a real figure from history); director Edward Berger (the director); composer Volker Bertelmann; and actor Albrecht Schuch (who plays Stanislaus 'Kat' Katczinsky).

What were your first impressions of Remarque’s novel?

Daniel Brühl: Like so many others in Germany I read this book in school, and it had a huge impact. It’s one of the books that got to us, impressed us all, and made us want to read it again. My father was a documentary filmmaker and made a documentary about Remarque, so he’s always been someone that fascinated me, and in particular this – his most famous and first novel – for its universal truth and timelessness.

It was a real epiphany when Malte [Grunert], the producer on the film and the driving force behind it, found a new adaptation of it written in English. He told me [the story] had never been done in its original language, which I hadn’t thought about. Knowing that it’s the most famous book in German literature, it was a chance to do something new with it.

Edward Berger: I read the novel when I was maybe 15, and then again in my twenties. I said yes [to Malte Grunert] immediately without having re-read it because I knew that it had left an indelible mark within me. I carried it with me, like every reader of this book, probably.

Erich Maria Remarque
Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the First World War and the author of 'All Quiet on the Western Front (1928). (Image by Getty Images)

How far did the novel influence the direction of the film?

EB: In terms of how the novel relates to the music, or a theme that we took out of the film, it’s in a way about the industrialisation of war and the dehumanisation of these kids. It was the first industrialised war, with a lot of shelling from artilleries and tanks. For example, there’s a sequence in the movie where tanks appear out of the fog, and the kids open their eyes and it’s almost sci-fi – like spaceships. They’ve never seen anything like this before, it’s like a machine that just keeps rolling and rolling over these kids, and they actually become part of this machine.

The 2022 adaptation takes inspiration from the novel's representation of the industrialisation of war, says director Edward Berger, left. (Image by Reiner Bajo for Netflix)

The way to survive is in a way to become a machine, to sort of dehumanise everything, shut all emotions off. It becomes about your survival. You need to survive, you need to eat voraciously when there is food, and you need to kill voraciously to get through it, with disregard for anything else. Nothing else counts, and so that loss of innocence, that hardening, is the arc of the story.

You need to survive, you need to eat voraciously when there is food, and you need to kill voraciously to get through it, with disregard for anything else

Basically, the north star for what we did is the book, and we tried to get images from the book and from research and combine this. Whatever happens in the frame is to give the audience an impression of what Paul [Bäumer, the main character and central figure of the story] is feeling at any given moment. I think that was the guiding light – be it music, be it camera, be it the fog in the frame, be it other characters around – a lot of it takes place on Paul’s face, and so really the biggest attempt was to get the audience to feel what he’s feeling at any given moment, to make it as immersive an experience as possible.

What attracted you to playing the roles of Erzberger and Kat respectively?

DB: I found it interesting that this new layer, which is not in the book, had an added storyline of a crucial moment in world history, which is so important for what happened after.

In Germany, I did not learn that much about Matthias Erzberger, who is a very interesting figure in German politics and history [Erzberger, 1875–1921, was a writer and politician, and a signatory of the Armistice in 1918]. He was a man who was very determined with a strong moral conviction and compass. Very early on, he started to argue with the Reich, complaining about the colonial politics, for example, and never got intimidated by the threatening voices of the far right and pushed for that signing of the peace treaty.

More like this

To play the human voice within that madness, who was surrounded by these men who you know feverishly want to continue that war, was something that attracted me.

Daniel Brühl plays Matthias Erzberger
Daniel Brühl plays Matthias Erzberger, a real figure from history. (Image by Reiner Bajo for Netflix)

Albrecht Schuch: This novel shook me in so many different layers and I thought being a part of it would be just more than a wonderful journey, especially with Edward [Berger], who I felt connected to right away.

Kat – this is the short version of Katczinsky, but the short version sort of defines his character already – doesn’t need too many words to express his situation, and that’s what I liked so much, because that’s cinema for me. The audience has a chance to project themselves into the silence of the character somehow, that’s a universal language without any words, so I liked the silence of that character and to fill that with thoughts, and to do so I was looking for an emotional core as well.

Albrecht Schuch (right) as 'Kat' in All Quiet on the Western Front
Albrecht Schuch (right) as 'Kat' in All Quiet on the Western Front, 2022. (Image by Reiner Bajo for Netflix)

There was, for example, another scene from the novel, that's not in the movie, when Paul Bäumer takes this holiday trip when he’s off duty, and he’s coming home. Just hearing the words of his sister – “Oh mother, oh mother, Paul is coming” – he literally broke hearing that warm familiar sound. It became the core of Kat for me to hide that [feeling] but to still give it a little corner somewhere hidden in his inner self. Kat tries to teach [his fellow soldiers] this – he is like a father in the movie. He’s trying to teach them not to approach that core too often because it will make you weak; it would put too many layers on your ‘animalish’ instincts which you need to kill out there on the battlefield.

The film chooses to take us away from the battlefields at moments, and to the signing of the Armistice. The figure of Matthias Erzberger has an emotional importance in the film. What can you tell me about that choice?

DB: What I found an interesting and intelligent choice is to have that parallel structure towards the end, that back and forth, because that creates tension dramatically. On the one hand it is sort of a relief to leave the horrors and death at the trenches and then go to the train; on the other side it’s as horrific because [audiences see] how polished they are, eating their croissants and having their tea, whilst the young men are dying on the battlefields, and still discussing and arguing, not getting to an agreement. That tension was interesting.

Matthias Erzberger, 1875–1921, was a writer and politician, and a signatory of the Armistice in 1918
Matthias Erzberger, 1875–1921, was a writer and politician, and a signatory of the Armistice in 1918. (Image by Getty Images)

I read the biography of Erzberger, who is fascinating because he makes his way up from the German south, the provinces, a very devoted Catholic, conservative but liberal within his conservatism, and that’s why I wanted to keep his accent – which is hard for me because my wife and her whole family are from that area so I’m pretty sure they are going to complain about my Swabian accent. I had a small part, but I know it was pivotal for the film, so I wanted to fill it with something that brings me closer to that man and that accent.

There are a few historical changes, but always to help the essence, to tell this story

There are a few historical changes, but always to help the essence, to tell this story. In fact, Erzberger’s son died of the Spanish Flu – he was not a victim in the trenches – but it was a change that I totally understood, so that he in his conviction in front of these hardcore, cold Prussians is more emotionally anchored in saying “My son died, what kind of honour should he feel?”

It was important to also fill these little parts with as much truth as we possibly could.

Two of the most powerful elements of the film are the use of personal objects as motifs and the use of landscape visuals. What were you hoping to achieve with this?

EB: The personal objects really came from trying to give every character something very personal, and very distinguishable from the other.

We are in the trenches so unfortunately there’s hardly any female presence in this film – basically none – and there’s a scarf that almost makes the absence of the women more palpable. The scarf is the female presence in a way, it’s something soft and it smells good and it’s something where the boys want to get to their mother or to their lover, to something that is beautiful and warm, and not just destruction and dirt and war and cold, and all these things that contrast that.

One of the characters, Kat, has a little beetle that he takes care of. Another [soldier] has an image of female presence, a poster of a theatre play that was put on. This is to give everyone something like a longing, a yearning – there’s this German word called sehnsucht, it’s the addiction to longing in a way.

The landscapes are very much about contrasts. (Image by Reiner Bajo for Netflix)

The landscapes are very much about contrasts. It’s about behind the lines in the war and in front of the lines, and what the generals think and how they act and what they do, or the armistice negotiators and the soldiers in the trenches. To make that even starker, we created something behind the lines to really make those trenches even smell more. The battle scenes are loud, but then there are peaceful sequences in between, to make that contrast even harsher – darkness and light and dirt and clean. We have those contrasts a lot, and the landscapes contrast to the destruction. But they are also something where we yearn to get again, and what we are about to lose, and the beauty of what we are destroying, just to remind us of that and almost give a sense of this could be so beautiful and so easy and yet we don’t let it. That was the purpose behind those serene shots.

Returning to the score, there is a bass motif which runs throughout the film, and often returns at moments of jeopardy. What was the thinking behind this?

Volker Bertelmann: I wanted to find an instrumentation that came from that time, so I found an instrument in my studio that was given to me by the mother of my grandmother, an old harmonium.

At the same time, I was thinking about war films where you would hear a lot of war horns – these big, shouting horns – so I wanted to find a sound that in a way captured this kind of tension, and the massiveness and the boldness of a war horn. But at the same time, I didn’t want to use a horn that would be used in a Roman empire movie or something like that, because it’s a completely different movie.

It maybe also connected with the idea of these little things that were giving warmth in a way. I found the harmonium of my grandmother which was given to me, and I restored it and recorded this motif in the first two days when Edward and I started working. I sent it to him and he loved it, and this one very intuitive motif became very strong. I actually used the harmonium with a distortion, an amplifier that you use for heavy metal guitars, and I think it describes the machinery of war.

The machinery of war looms large in All Quiet on the Western Front
The machinery of war looms large in All Quiet on the Western Front. (Image by Reiner Bajo for Netflix)

EB: What I connected to is that [the score] attacks you, and I immediately thought: “What a great transcription of the images and what a great counter-position too.” It felt like it was attacking the images, destroying the images, not just scoring it but adding a whole new level to it, and that’s why I loved it so much. But there’s a cracking and a creaking underneath it, and that’s really the inner workings of this old instrument, you hear Volker’s feet and knees pumping the air in it and underneath it’s dirty; it’s not a clean instrument and I love hearing all these creaks and it’s a part of that machine I think, it’s wonderful.

VB: Normally you would cut those sounds out. You know, normally when you record something you would clean it, like take the breath out, take the air out.

What would you like viewers to take away from the film?

DB: I want young people to watch it. That would be my hope, because we all wish that this film was not as relevant as it is, with a war in the middle of Europe. We all should be reminded, and the youth should be reminded, that war is not an adventure, as Remarque said. It’s not cool, there’s nothing glorious about it; even if you are the supposed winner, your life is damaged and ruined for the rest of your days. This is the essential message of Remarque, and it comes across in the film and I would love especially young people to watch it.

EB: I wanted the audience to feel a certain weight, an inescapability, and for maybe just one minute, or an hour or if I’m lucky, the evening; they’ll take an impression of it home and just think about it. Then, probably, everyone moves on with their lives. I don’t want to impart a message or anything, everyone sort of needs to interpret that for themselves, but I think that’s the best word for it: there’s a weight that this story, and war in general, brings with it.


Bethany Wyatt is a cultural historian and heritage professional. You can find her on Twitter at @WyattBeth

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022), directed by Edward Berger, is available on Netflix in the UK and US now. Looking for something else to watch? Explore our full round-up of the best historical TV and film available to stream right now, or the new history TV and radio airing in the UK this month.