How the ‘Guilt and Shame’ of Germany’s Role in Two World Wars Impacted ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

Actor Felix Kammerer was worried that the German war epic might be too "heroic" — until director Edward Berger set him straight.

All Quiet on the Western Front

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is the sole non-English language nominee for Best Picture and a strong frontrunner for Best International Feature; it also stands a good shot at winning in several other categories. While it certainly wouldn’t be the first war epic with serious Oscar season momentum, it brings a unique perspective to the genre as the first adaptation of the 1928 novel told from a German perspective.

That specificity is what drew writer-director Edward Berger to the material, but it also created a challenge for his young cast. “I was afraid it might become some sort of heroic war film,” said Felix Kammerer, who plays the young, idealistic WWI recruit Paul, in a conversation with Berger for IndieWire’s Awards Season Spotlight series.

That wasn’t in the cards. Growing up in Germany, Berger was very aware of the shadows cast by the country’s roles in two world wars. However, when he started working on his “All Quiet” adaptation, he realized that his young cast didn’t have the same connection to the past. “We have inherited the DNA of starting two world wars,” Berger told Kammerer, recalling their conversation early in the casting process. “There’s a lot of guilt and shame associated with that and responsibility towards history. … I don’t know if you have this in your generation.”

Kammerer agreed. “In my generation, it’s more of a rational thing,” said the 27-year-old actor, who had previous experience in theater but made his screen debut with the movie. “There’s so much guilt that you understand and feel responsible for, but not in a personal, emotional way.”

However, Kammerer added, Berger made it clear that they would confront the darker aspects of the story through the prism of history. After their initial conversation, “I knew it never, ever was this going to be a hero story,” Kammerer said. Berger nodded. “It cannot be a hero’s journey,” he said. “As a German, there’s nothing heroic about that part of history.”

Kammerer created a unique approach to delivering his character’s conflicted emotional state throughout the movie. “It’s basically an Excel spreadsheet,” he said. “It combines categories for the character with numbers of scenes and levels of energy. If you put in the numbers in preparation, you come up with some kind of graph that looks like a tax return sheet. It shows you in a very mathematical and rational way the development — somehow, the evolution — of the character.”

Berger said he had no idea about Kammerer’s meticulous approach, but was impressed by the actor’s investment in the role. “I put Felix through a really hard casting process,” he said, recalling how he called the Kammerer back for several auditions in costume. “Anyone else would’ve walked away, but because Felix had never been through casting before, he thought this was normal.”

The movie required major physical investment by Kammerer and the other actors tasked with dashing through muddy, claustrophobic trenches in 90 pounds of clothing as the cameras sprinted alongside them. Rain was a frequent presence on the set. “You are running with that weight all day long through the trenches,” he said. “It really took something for us to do this over and over again. At the same time, you feel it’s worth it.”

Watch the full conversation above and check out other Awards Season Spotlight conversations here. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is streaming on Netflix.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Awards Spotlight Winter 2023 and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox