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Case study: Creating the beauty and horror of All Quiet on the Western Front

Editor Sven Budelmann discusses his work on the Oscar-nominated drama, and how his close collaboration with director Edward Berger led to creating a film that is as authentic and realistic as possible

All Quiet on the Western Front originated as a novel written by a German veteran of World War I, with themes including the pointlessness and chaos of war and its long-term traumatic effects on those who survive. It was first made into a film in 1930 by director Lewis Milestone, winning Academy Awards for Outstanding Production and Best Director and eventually being selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Today that film’s editing, by Maurice Pivar, and cinematography, by Arthur Edeson are cited as early examples of filmmaking’s recovery from the restrictions of the nascent sound era.

Edward Berger’s 2022 edition of the story opened at the Toronto Film Festival and met with universal praise. Today’s filmmaking tools help bring the tale to a new level of dramatic visual impact. Director of photography James Friend shot with an array of modern digital cameras, with his main tool the ARRI ALEXA 65, augmented by the ALEXA Mini LF when a more mobile camera was required. Both cameras use CODEX recording technology as part of a proven, rock-solid workflow. The large format sensors at the heart of these cameras helped put the audience “through hell,” says Friend, who also noted that the two cameras intercut seamlessly. Images were captured in LF Open Gate 4.5K format, with an array of spherical lenses, and cropped to a final aspect ratio of 2.39:1.

Editor Sven Budelmann came onto the project more than a year ahead of principal photography. His first task was to create a “mood trailer” with Berger to explore ideas and find the right tonality.

“The basic approach was to shoot it almost as a documentary, as authentic and realistic as possible,” says Budelmann. “Instead of standard images of war, we put together images of beautiful nature and underscored that with a destructive score. We knew we could create tension with a combination of violence and beauty.

“When it came to the actual edit, we used those silent moments of nature to control the dynamic of violence, because you can’t maintain the maximum level of horror. You need to step back. When I finally got the first footage, which was the journey of the uniforms, I knew for certain that this film was going to be amazing.”

An example of this tension is the scene where the main character is assigned the task of collecting dog tags from the dead. He steps on a pair of eyeglasses and realizes they belong to his friend, whose body he soon finds. After a long pause in the rain, he begins to cry. “The camera tracks back and we cut to a beautiful, tree-lined landscape,” says Budelmann. “Nature doesn’t care what’s happening to these people. That helps to give some distance.”

Budelmann says that the inherent power of the immersive images affects the editorial decisions at every cut. “The quality and beauty are so high that it contrasts with the horrors depicted. We have dead bodies, and fighting, and then we have this beauty. James Friend did such an amazing job – each angle is perfect. Our thought was to use each shot only once. Each shot has a certain place within each scene. There’s not much cutting back and forth to a previously seen angle, like in a standard dialog scene. The pace is not fast, so each cut becomes more important.”

“It’s so important that we stay in close contact during shooting” 

The X2X Media Group, owners of CODEX products and services, also facilitated communications and project management on the project through its PIX collaboration tools. For portions of the shoot done at the height of the Covid restrictions, Budelmann was working in Berlin. Meanwhile, Berger and Friend were proceeding with the shoot in the Czech Republic, where an abandoned Soviet-era airfield provided space for trenches and battlefields. An LED volume was also used at Barrandov Studios in Prague. At the end of each day, Budelmann’s assistant would upload the day’s work to PIX. After viewing the cuts, Berger would call Budelmann and discuss things on his drive home.

It was crucial to Budelmann to have as close an approximation of the final audio as possible. “It’s so important that we stay in close contact during the shooting,” says Budelmann. “To me, editing is the most creative part of filmmaking because it’s not just about cutting the picture. It’s about the whole package and how everything works together – the performance, sound and music. The editing room is the only place where you can manipulate all these elements at the same time. Usually in feature films, the dialogue determines the structure and length of shots. In All Quiet, there’s not much talking. The cuts are often determined or affected by other elements – the sound design, for example. We did a lot of sound work in the editing. To get the right timing requires experimentation with every element.”

After the shoot wrapped, Budelmann and Berger spent another five months fine-tuning the edit.

Budelmann made his first short films as a teenager, emulating scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark. That led to the opportunity to cut music videos, and by his early 20s, he was editing clips for top performers like Madonna and Garbage. When his directors segued into working on commercials, Budelmann followed, experimenting, and learning at every step. Eventually, he began to get opportunities to work in the narrative. He says that the sensitivity to timing, tone, and mise en scene the job requires can be nurtured.

“They are gut feelings, but I think you can learn the gut feelings,” he says. “I learned a lot from my collaborators, and a lot by doing. It’s not something you come into the world with. Filmmaking is a group effort, so it’s extremely important to find the right people to work with. I’m so glad that Edward shares my passion and taste and makes sure we have the time to develop these elements and find the right timing and the right blend of each element.”

All Quiet on the Western Front has been nominated and ultimately won numerous awards to date, including seven BAFTAs, the BSC Award for Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature Film. It has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. The film is currently available on Netflix.