‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ Cinematographer Threw Himself into the Horror and the Beauty of World War I

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When a freak snow flurry began dusting the set for “All Quiet on the Western Front” on a winter location shoot in the Czech Republic early last year, cinematographer James Friend knew he had to keep rolling.

The epic Netflix adaptation of the 1929 war polemic by Erich Maria Remarque, directed by Edward Berger and starring Felix Kammerer as German soldier Paul Bäumer as a naïve volunteer thrown into the nightmare of endless trench warfare, screened in competition at the Camerimage Intl. Film Festival last week.

“Filmmaking is a very organic process,” says Friend, “and even though we sat down and found a visual grammar and a palette that we thought resonated with the source material – we really previsualized everything – but also we were conscious to navigate the audience through the war and beauty at the same time. And we wanted to really showcase that.”

Thus, the crucial moment in the film, in which Bäumer is about to pay the ultimate price for his naivete about the war, became one no one could have staged with quite the same effect.

“On day two of filming it started to snow and we captured this moment of beauty,” Friend recalls, “and I would love to take credit for it but I can’t because it was just the clouds and nature. We got the scene and frankly it looks so beautiful with all the elements of the weather.”

While traditional production demands would have dictated they wait till it was clear to film the scene, in this case the whole team backed up Friend and the director, he says. They scrambled to bring in artificial snow overnight to allow them to build on that shot to shoot the entire sequence that way.

“That scene was not originally supposed to take place in snow but they looked at it and they got behind us.”

As Berger recalls, “it happened to be the scene where he’s going to die a few minutes later. It was almost like a sign from nature to give this character the beauty for his farewell.”

That kind of instinct, plus the team’s dedication to finding new meaning and nuance in Remarque’s classic novel is likely why Netflix came on board to back the ambitious remake of the film, which has had two former lives as an American-made feature in English, the best known the 1930 classic, which was the first Oscar-winner based on a novel.

Following its premiere at the Toronto fest, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was released to streaming audiences on Netflix on Oct. 28 and will be Germany’s submission for the Academy Awards.

Berger sold the film to the streaming giant at the Berlin Film Festival in 2020, he says, choosing them over several other interested parties. Netflix proved best at promising creative freedom and support, he says, which proved true during the 50-some day shoot in Czech Republic, where he and cinematographer Friend got to work converting an abandoned Soviet-era airfield near the town of Milovice into a WWI trench Armageddon.

Supported all through COVID lockdowns as lenders started to retreat from the industry and raise fees, the streamer granted them “unwavering support,” says Berger. The production was also well-timed to fit into a major push by Netflix at the time to build up its European-language portfolio.

“During production, they were unbelievably supportive,” says Friend. “They let us have our voice as filmmakers and go shoot in what formats we wanted. And the other thing with Netflix is everyone associates them with streaming. But they were also very supportive of projecting this on the big screen.”

On the big screen in Europe in September and globally in October, the film will mainly be seen by home audiences, whose screens may seem to strain to contain its gripping scenes of the chaos, terror and scale of war’s destruction.

They key for Berger and Friend, they say, was to put the audience in the young soldier’s boots and let them experience what he sees.

“So much it was just looking through the lens and finding the right moment and finding the right shot and translating that onto the screen,” Friend says. “We don’t work in the animation department, you know. We react to real environments and real people and, you know, real weather, real conditions.”

Final color timing was another journey in its own way, he adds, “because we always ended up just paring it back and going ‘more naturalism, naturalism.’ Which was always the basis of our photography. We wanted it to be as authentic and realistic as humanly possible, from every aspect.”

Opting for wide lenses in close, backlit as much as possible, shooting mornings in the French trenches, afternoons the German, the team managed to recreate the classic as something fresh and wholly apart.

“There’s very little visual effects in the film. It was a real immersive piece of filmmaking as much behind the camera as in front of it. We had to exist in those trenches too as a filmmaking unit. It was tough. For the actors and the crew. Apart from firing live rounds at each other, it was the closest thing to warfare as you can imagine.”

“And I think that was really felt on the screen.”