Volker Bertelmann (‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ composer) on how he created ‘iconic’ 3-note theme [Exclusive Video Interview]

Composer Volker Bertelmann grew up reading the 1929 novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” when he was in school, which served as the basis for the 1930 Best Picture winner and the new 2022 Netflix adaptation, which recently made the Oscar shortlist in five categories including Best Score. “It’s a surprise and at the same time you feel uplifted on that day [for being] acknowledged for your work,” Bertelmann reveals about the film’s success on the awards front.

We talked with Bertelmann as a part of Gold Derby’s Film Composers Oscar Shortlist Panel Q&A event. Watch our exclusive video interview above.

The film begins with a devastating battle scene in which there are notably no music cues at all. How does Bertelmann know as the composer when to showcase his score and when to hold back? “There’s definitely an intuitive decision by yourself but there’s also other decision-makers that are also having different opinions. In an ideal case, you have a really nice collaboration with someone and you talk about it, and you don’t feel like you have to fulfill certain spots. In this case, [Edward Berger] is a director that really trusts you.”

He recalls that Berger gave him the following pieces of advice: “I want to have a music for the stomach of Paul Bäumer, who’s the main protagonist. I want to have destruction. And I want to have a snare that is played by somebody who can’t play the snare.” Bertelmann tells us, “For me, that was the most difficult thing that I had to do because I had to find a way of a snare rhythm that is not really sounding in time.” Berger also wanted him to compose something he had “never done before,” which added “a lot of pressure.”

The “iconic” three-note music theme that occurs throughout “All Quiet on the Western Front” is played on his great-grandmother’s harmonium instrument. “I actually had it here in my studio refurbished and tuned to 440hz. I had it in very good shape, but I never used it. I really loved it, but I had no use for it. [Later] I was thinking, ‘I need something that is an instrument that has machinery and it has to be from that time,'” so the harmonium became the voice of the film.

Bertelmann and Berger previously worked together on “Patrick Melrose” and “Your Honor” before their current collaboration on “All Quiet.” What is their working relationship like after all these years? “The only thing he wants is that I’m not working only with my left hand,” the composer smiles. “He wants to have me full on, and he wants to have something special with research in the process.”

Also in our exclusive video interview, Bertelmann talks about how he didn’t want to create a “cliche of a war film,” how this Netflix adaptation is the first German interpretation of the classic book, and how he collaborated with the sound department on the big battle scenes.

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