Recreating the horrors of World War I in the Czech Republic
Filmed twice before in 1930 and 1979, the new Netflix version of All Quiet On The Western Front is definitive. The mud, gore and terrifying insanity of trench warfare is recreated with a relevance to the current war in Ukraine that the filmmakers could not have anticipated when shooting began.
“People have said it’s a beautiful looking film but it should be beautiful in its horror,” says James Friend, ASC BSC. “This should not be comfortable to watch. It should not be aesthetically sumptuous.”
He adds, “If you have a story that unfolds in the trenches there are only so many ways you can do it without it feeling gimmicky or overly forced. We wanted our film to feel very natural. People have drawn the comparison with [Sam Mendes’] 1917 but the only thing they have in common is the setting of WW1.
“It exposes the reality of war and how going in with a naïve attitude like those poor kids did, because they are being seduced by their government and their country and their elders. There is a saying from [credited to Franklin D. Roosevelt] ‘war is young men dying and old men talking’. That is something that always resonated with me. The audience should go in very optimistic in the beginning and should come out completely broken.”
German director Edward Berger, with whom Friend worked on the mini-series Patrick Melrose, has gone back to the 1929 source novel by Erich Maria Remarque who wrote the fiction inspired by his personal experience of the First World War. In all areas, from the production design by Christian Goldbeck, to weapons, props and Lisy Christl’s costumes, they sought historical authenticity.
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“I read Remarque’s novel in school when I was about 16,” says Friend. “Edward and I were very conscious not to remake the previous movies but make a fresh adaptation of the book. I read it again cover to cover in two nights. Our approach was to show the horror of war, how brutal it truly was.”
The story is largely experienced from the point of view of a young solider, a fresh faced recruit at the start of the film (played by Felix Kammerer). Berger’s screenplay adds scenes of the ceasefire negotiations of November 1918 in a railway carriage in the forest in Northern France. So, we get a bird’s-eye view to compliment the worm’s eye view of the soldiers. He has also written a prologue in which we follow the fate of a soldier in scenes which seem eerily prescient of what may be going on in Russia now during its mobilisation of the public.
All Quiet On The Western Front, Netflix: The set
The extensive battlefield scenes were shot at a Soviet era airport in Milovice, Czech Republic. The production dug several hundred metres of trenches for French and German lines, a no man’s land in between and the hinterland behind, arrayed with barbed wire, bomb craters, animal carcasses and corpses. The trenches were connected to allow for construction of extended camera shots following the actors over long distances.
The airfield was also chosen because it was completely South facing from its hero angle. The sun rose from the ‘French’ side, and it set perfectly on the ‘German’ side enabling Friend to shoot all through the day against the light.
“Something that is not very apparent when you watch the film is that there was a dead area of the battlefield in the North direction, so that we could treat the location like a three walled set,” he says. “I was kind of scared it wouldn’t work. But it did.”
Moving around this battlefield during filming was challenging. Production had imported mud to cover the set and dug craters, displacing that earth across the location too. It has snowed before filming began in March and April, thawing to exacerbate the mud bath.
“Even going from A to B on a foot was a huge challenge let alone carrying camera and lighting grip. A lot of what you see is practical with special effects digging mortars into the ground, blowing up large amounts of earth and dust. The general approach was do as much in camera as possible.”
All Quiet On The Western Front, Netflix: Cameras and lighting
The logistics of carrying a camera over this terrain dictated the use of a smaller, more lightweight Alexa Mini LF and DNA lens on a Stabileye gimbal operated by Danny Bishop.
One shot near the beginning of the film could only have been achieved with this piece of kit (and the skills of Bishop). In it, the operator is moving through the muddy corridor of a trench with extras flying past and explosions going off. A Technocrane then lifts the camera out of the Grip’s hands and places it above the trench before two more grips grab the camera again to rush across no-man’s land. Berger added in an explosion at the top of the trench to mask the second or two required for the grips to regain control of the camera from the crane.
Another stand out shot tracks Paul (in this case a stunt man) running away from camera before being knocked suddenly (by grenade) into a deep crater and rolling into water. For this, Bishop was harnessed into a wire descender rig normally used to suspend actors allowing him to perform the jump with the stunt man.
“The technique has been used a few times such as following stunt performers out of windows but this is the first time I’ve seen it used in a high octane war environment,” Friend says.
The ‘A’ camera was the IMAX certified Alexa 65 which offered Friend greater immersivity. “People tend to associate 65mm with landscape photography, but we found it very appealing to put those large format cameras in tight spaces, like trenches, corridors or smaller rooms where it can enhance claustrophobia. Also, we wanted to put the human field of view into these environments.”
For example, in a scene showing the villain of the piece, General Friedrichs, enjoying a rich dinner by candlelit the 65 lent a majesty that the LF may not have had. “The softer look and shallower depth of field cut through to the essence of the scene we were trying to portray which is to show how far removed the officer class was from the front line,” Friend says.
For night work he chose the superior light sensitivity of the Sony Venice plus Tribe7 Blackwing7 Primes and had a massive softbox constructed to float over the set comprised of 60 SkyPanels throwing a base illumination.
“I put quite a lot of smoke in the deep background and it was dissipating pretty quickly so it wouldn’t come too close to camera,” the DP explains. “I didn’t want it to look foggy it or smoky, just to feel like things were smouldering. I illuminated the smoke using two 18kw ARRI Maxes (at the furthest point of the battlefield) to give a sense of scale and we used a SkyPanel S-360 on a Condor aerial platform through 12” x 12” diffusion to light the actors together with some additional small LED lights on the floor.
An ARRI Orbiter lamp was also deployed for night time visuals. This LED fixture has a sensor able to register the colour and intensity of light. After turned out all the lights the team fired flares to get a reading then programmed that information through a lighting desk.
“When I wanted to light the actors on the battlefield with the illusion of a real flare we could run that information through the softbox so that it would flicker at an appropriate frequency and give us an accurate colour to match the flares. It worked surprisingly well.”
All Quiet On The Western Front, Netflix: LUTs
Budget wouldn’t permit use of Livegrade, Friend’s preferred software for look management, so he needed an alternative that was both portable and durable; “We couldn’t be pushing DIT carts around on set.” He shot a variety of costume tests and worked with Goldcrest colourist Andrew Daniel to build a show LUT. Daniel then graded with Friend during two weeks around Christmas 2021.
“I love working with natural light and tried our best to shoot flat overcast light as much as possible to give the story the atmosphere it needed.”
Local, largely Bohemian architecture was transformed into Flemish or French-looking architecture. Other backdrops were created at Barrandov studio in Prague including several train compartments used for scenes where German and French military leaders negotiate peace.
The Netflix release is a German foreign language film which presented some additional obstacles for Friend.
“When Edward called me and said we are going to do this in German he asked how do I felt about it. I’d never really encountered this problem before, how to navigate an entire foreign language movie. On the set though the crew were Czech and English was the common language. I had an English version of the script and I’d read it dozens of times so it was very easy to keep track of what was going on. Occasionally when we had to do a camera move my operator might double check with the script supervisor if we had the right line. At the beginning it was a bit daunting but after shooting the first scene it became second nature.”
All Quiet On The Western Front is available on Netflix now.
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