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In a scene from Edward Berger’s adaptation of the classic WWI novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which is nominated for nine Oscars including best picture, Paul (Felix Kammerer) and other young soldiers face a new threat: the menacing French Saint-Chamond assault tanks, something that they had never before seen.
This sequence and more of the work on the film is discussed by Oscar-nominated composer Volker Bertelmann, supervising sound editor Frank Kruse, co-sound designer Markus Stemler and rerecording mixer Lars Ginzel, in a new episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s Behind the Screen podcast.
The sequence that introduces the tanks in the Netflix movie begins with the soldiers in a field kitchen, when suddenly the table begins to shake violently. Something isn’t right, but they don’t know what it is. They rush to the trenches with their arms.
“We felt the best way to tackle that scene is to just stay with the soldiers and keep up the unknown,” explains Kruse. “We decided to only [allow the audience to hear] the phenomenons that these tanks created, like the shaking and the rumble, and we also had little pebble stones jumping on the ground.”
Ominous sounds continue and then, out of a cloud of yellowish fog and smoke, the tanks are revealed, heading toward the soldiers in the trenches. “This is where we start to hear more specific sounds of the tanks,” says Kruse. “This is also the moment where in that battle the music comes back for the first time.”
When the tanks come to the screen, their sounds are layers that include recordings of the prop tank engines from the set. Sound was also used to convey that the tanks are resistant to bullet impact, which the soldiers learn as their shots fired bounce off of the armored vehicles. “We used to call them iron beasts because they were so solid,” Stemler says, noting that the sounds involved recording heavy metal elements, as elements such as pile drivers, hammers and chains.
Kruse adds that this included a ventilation shaft “that was kind of played like an instrument, scratched with forks and screeches and that was then pitched down to create the kind of the howling as they approach.”
Combining with the soundscape to complete the experience is Bertelmann’s haunting cue. The composer explains that he felt the music should begin as the soldiers are watching the horizon, before the tanks are revealed as the threat, “not giving away something at that point.” Part of this involved the work of a contrabass player, recording very low bass treatments. “You need something that can grow,” Bertelmann says of his overall approach to the cue. “It’s just like these increasing points of tension.”
The cue also includes the film’s three-note motif that was recorded with a refurbished harmonium and used throughout the film. “I wanted to have an instrument from that time, in a way because I had the feeling it needs some connection to that time,” Bertelmann says. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to have a dated instrument. And that’s why I also had the feeling that it needs maybe an instrument that is a little bit like a machine. Because when I saw the first sequence, it reminded me a little bit of old black-and-white films about industry.”
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