In a scene from Edward Berger’s adaptation of the classic World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Frontwhich has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Paul (Felix Kammerer) and other young soldiers face a new threat: France’s Saint-Chamond assault tanks, something they’ve never seen before.
The sequence in the Netflix movie begins with the soldiers in the field kitchen when suddenly the table starts shaking violently. Something isn’t right, but they don’t know what it is. They rush arm in arm into the trenches.
“We felt the best way to approach this scene was to stay with the soldiers and keep up with the unknown,” explains sound supervisor/designer Frank Cross of the film’s Academy Award-nominated sound team. “We just decided [allow the audience to hear] The phenomena these tanks created, such as vibration and rumble, and we also had small pebbles bouncing around on the ground.”
Ominous sounds continue, and then, from a cloud of yellowish mist and smoke, tanks are revealed charging toward the soldiers in the trenches. “This is where we start to hear more specific tank sounds,” Cruz says. “This is also the moment when the music returns for the first time in that battle.”
When the tanks appear on screen, their sounds are layered including recordings of the support tank engines from the set. Sound has also been used to convey that tanks are bulletproof, which soldiers learn when their shots ricochet off armored vehicles. “We used to call them Iron Monsters because they were so solid,” says co-sound designer Marcus Stemler, noting that the team recorded heavy metal elements, such as pile drivers, mallets, and chains. This, Cross adds, involved a ventilation shaft “which was sort of played on like a musical instrument, scratched with thorns and shrieks, and then lowered to make a howl as it approached”.
Volker Bertelmann’s haunting reference to this sequence combines with the soundscape to complete the experience. The composer explains that he felt the music should start while the soldiers watched the horizon – before the tanks were revealed as a threat and “not giving something up 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 general approach to cues. “It’s just like these growing points of tension.”
It also includes reference All is quietThe three-note design, scored with a restored organ, is used throughout the film. “I wanted to have an instrument from that time, in a way because I felt it needed some connection with that time,” says Bertelmann. “But at the same time, I didn’t want a dated instrument. That’s also why I felt it needed an instrument a bit like the instrument. Because when I saw the first sequence, it reminded me a bit of the old black-and-white movies about the industry.”
This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Click here to subscribe.