‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – Interview with Heike Merker & Frank Petzold

All Quiet on the Western Front is the newest adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name. Directed by Edward Berger, it stars Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Daniel Brühl, Sebastian Hülk, Aaron Hilmer, Edin Hasanovic, and Devid Striesow. I was lucky enough to speak to Heike Merker, from the Makeup and Hairstyling team, and Frank Petzold, from the Visual Effects team, about their work on the film.

Jillian Chilingerian: I am very excited to be talking to both of you today because the VFX and the makeup were two of my favorite parts of the film. Seeing those Oscar nominations, me and my friends were so ecstatic that was recognized. In modern filmmaking, for hair and makeup and visual effects, it’s mostly about what is the most or the flashiest. What I love about this film is that it’s very understated, but effective in the storytelling. So, I’m curious to hear from both of you on the approach to make it feel as natural as possible.

Heike Merker: Thank you for this, I went with my feeling and after doing all the research, seeing the costume department, the break down, talking to the props and set deck people about what kind of colors are they using and where are we and how muddy will that be. So, this is when I started creating all the dirt colors and different consistencies to layer them. Honestly, I don’t know if it is realistic.

I approach it like a painting and so that you could layer up and take off or sometimes when it rains, it kind of drips down, but you still have it left over and then you keep going and on and on and on. It was a very intense process and playing around with all those colors were wonderful. I did some other movies where I had dirt and stuff, but not to that level. This became a new world to me and a very wonderful world to play with. I’m so glad that it turned out that well and that people like it so much.

Frank Petzold: For the visual effects, the script or the book basically tells you that you have to do it right. It couldn’t be flashy, it couldn’t be overwhelming, and it couldn’t be just another impossible angle or explosion that you had to do. Because the acting and the soul of the actors really had to come across and you couldn’t have fireworks going off in the background. We concentrated on making sure that the details are there, it’s historically correct, it’s authentic, and it shows the horrors of war without overwhelming the viewer that they go numb right away in the first 5 minutes, which is often done nowadays. It is sort of like wanting to create a historical document because there isn’t that much left over from World War One as references of the films that are even made.

JC: When we think of war, it is about the collective, but in the movie it’s very individualized where everyone has their own story within the scope of being with their country. On the makeup aspect with the mud, painting everyone’s individual journey with the different textures and different stages of mud from wet to dry.

HM: The script gives you a line from A to B and you have the breakdown from each character in which scene he is in. Then you can say like, okay, something happened here, something happened there, so he needs to have a window, or maybe we don’t see that. In the end, there is something going on, so you can put a map together for each and every character.

It was also a very wonderful working experience with different departments. For example, with the costume department, it was very collaborative.  I think you see that in the movie that we had a tough schedule, so we had to work together. Coming back to the mud and characters, Paul is our lead character, and he is guiding us through everything. Then all his friends they’re getting killed one by one and so it was very clear that you have to give something to him so that he is feeling cold, that he is in a trauma, that he is shocked, that he is he’s getting thinner apart from all the dirt and mud.

Of course, you do your test and this could be a pattern for him, and then you go to the next character because it’s totally different. He went a different way and came from a different angle, so the mud probably was different. They are in the same world, but still, each of them needs to have a different pop up.

JC: When you’re on set and going through like touch ups, what was time in between set ups like?

HM: I’m always around the camera department. In between setups, depends on what we were shooting, they kept rolling, and we’d do it again. So, there was not really a possibility to step in even. When we had like bigger setups, like coming out of the trenches or going over the battlefield, this takes a while to go back to number one. So you have time, but also you need to give space to the performer because they are exhausted because of the process and the heaviness of the costumes. You always need to make sure you do your job, but you also give them space.

We had another problem at the beginning because of COVID. The COVID department said after each take, they all must wear masks. That’s not possible, especially not for the cast. You must find a different another solution for it and they found something else.

JC: I forgot about the COVID aspect of a lot of these movies that came out this year. How did that feel doing that during COVID?

HM: It was a special time for all of us.

FP: I’d look the same behind the camera than what it was on the screen. So, we were also knee deep in mud. Oh my god, It’s raining.

JC: You were working with the different departments on what was going to be captured in real time and what you would go back to enhance through VFX versus replace. I noticed the fog intensifying to add another layer.

FP: If you shoot at an airport, you never know what’s going to happen. Even preproduction. We didn’t know if it was going to rain for three weeks or if we could do some fog on set or not. Then you don’t even know if it’s going to be a windy day.  Every shooting day, I had discussions with SFX about what can you bring the next day and what can we do, what’s safe? It is usually you can’t be too close to the actors or the stunt guys. It was amazing what they were doing and some of them almost lost their hearing.

JC: Oh my gosh.

FP: Including ourselves! So, what you must do is fill in the background, because even on the gigantic set at some point, you see the second runway of the airport. The process was sort of not driven by technology that much while we’re shooting. I wanted to collect as much as possible on set. That required having access to the camera truck and being able to have an outdoor green screen stage. Luckily since it was a big field that we shot at, I was able to get the northern part of it and put the stuntmen on treadmills to have them.

All the additional soldiers in the background that you see, they’re not massive simulations in animation, they are real. The real thing always looks better and certainly some of the fogs had to be simulated in Houdini because the camera movements and the change of perspective were so hard. Especially the explosions. I wanted to keep them real as elements because they’re so beautiful for how horrific they are. It was driven for me by the book that you wanted to really depict reality, how it was and what better way than really trying to get it in front of a lens.

JC: Well, thank you and I’m so glad you were both recognized for your hard work.

HM: Thank you.

All Quiet on the Western Front is now streaming on Netflix and in select theaters.
You can read our review of the film here.

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