War Machine: Christian Goldbeck on the Oscar-nominated production design of All Quiet on the Western Front

Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) faces the horrors of war in All Quiet on the Western Front. — Credit… Netflix
Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) faces the horrors of war in All Quiet on the Western Front. Credit… Netflix

The production designer of All Quiet on the Western Front details the “machinery of war” at work in the film’s opening sequence.

The factories existed, and they were only occupied by female workers. That’s a story rarely told: in those factories, women were dying also, because it was such hard labor, they were working with weapons, and so on. We wanted to show that.

—⁠Christian Goldbeck

One of the most surprising success stories of this year’s awards season is that of Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which is currently nominated in nine Oscar categories including best picture and best international feature.

An epic new adaptation of the 1929 anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, director Edward Berger’s take on the classic story of one young man’s journey from fresh-faced schoolboy to shell-shocked survivor amid the horrors of World War I is the first German-language best-picture contender. (Its nine nominations place it behind only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Roma as one of the most nominated non-English-language films in Oscars history.) Indeed, Berger’s film has emerged as a dark-horse contender for best picture—an unexpected turn of events, given its muted world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September and global rollout on Netflix just one month later. All Quiet did not seem destined for awards-season glory until the BAFTAs, which handed it fourteen nominations and ultimately awarded the film its top prize, in addition to six other accolades.

All Quiet’s visceral depiction of war is both a technical and narrative achievement, from composer Volker Bertelmann’s brooding score (which makes use of a thunderous three-note motif, played on a turn-of-the-century harmonium) to director of photography James Friend’s immersive approach to capturing a soldier’s perspective of trench warfare, which keeps the camera close to characters as bullets ricochet around them and mud rises past their knees.

A factory of women working to mend and repackage uniforms for soldiers.
A factory of women working to mend and repackage uniforms for soldiers.

For Oscar-nominated production designer Christian Goldbeck, recreating the horrific realities of WWI-era combat was a daunting challenge, but he was also riveted by the opportunity to depict on screen the experiences of those who sacrificed for the German war effort while remaining far from the battlefield. All Quiet’s opening montage observes young German soldier Heinrich (Jakob Schmidt) in the hellish final moments of his life, before following his bloodied and bullet-riddled uniform back through the belly of the German war machine, where it’s boiled clean in a cauldron and stitched back together by a line of seamstresses toiling in a darkened factory.

An evocative prologue, this montage concludes as Heinrich’s repaired uniform is pressed into the hands of Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), All Quiet’s naive hero. Goldbeck sat down with Journal to detail his work on the haunting opening sequence, reflect on making All Quiet on the Western Front, and share the film that first awakened his passion for production design.

Blood being washed out of uniforms from deceased soldiers.
Blood being washed out of uniforms from deceased soldiers.

Within its visceral depiction of warfare, the opening montage of All Quiet on the Western Front stands out, particularly through scenes of dead soldiers’ uniforms being recycled, washed, repaired, and handed off to new recruits. Where did your conversations with director Edward Berger begin, with regard to that opening montage?
Christian Goldbeck: It’s emblematic of the big theme of the movie, which is the machinery of war and how you’re chewed up in it. This scene is not in the book, but we tried to find a visual expression of it, so we thought of this opening montage of how the uniform of the person you think is going to be our hero, and is going to lead us through the movie, is recycled and used on the next soldier. We didn’t know then, but things like that happen today. I read in the paper that Russian conscripts inherit the uniforms of their dead comrades. And so that uniform is whirled and cleaned and ends up in these sewing machines, which are going in unison. That turns into the sound of machine guns and the wheel of a truck, showing how these young men are mauled up in this machinery of war.

Depicting this machinery, for me as a production designer, was more or less the biggest task. In 1870, in the Franco-German War, people were still fighting against each other with sabers. The First World War was the first war after the industrial production of weapons; nobody really knew what harm they could cause, but everybody was curious to try them out. It was important, before we met Paul Bäumer, to give the audience the full scope of what would happen in this movie, so the whole battlefield, the trenches, no man’s land, and the hinterland are all established in that opening. Whole cities in the hinterland were destroyed in the First World War, and that made it, for me, so complicated.

I knew that whatever would follow in the movie had to be crystal-clear in those first five minutes. We approach Heinrich with a piece of equipment called the Stabil­eye camera. We hook it onto a crane and climb up with this kid, out of the trench, then unhook the camera and run with him across the battlefield until he gets shot. Basically, the whole scene is three shots only. That’s what I planned it for, together with Edward and James. It had to serve the movement of the actor, but it also had to serve the movement of the camera, how we wanted to be so close to this character. That’s the only time we see the battlefield in full frost and snow cover. As you can imagine, we didn’t shoot the whole thing chronologically, so we artificially snowed the whole three football fields of the battlefield, including the trenches, only to take away that afterwards.

Those washing and sewing images, meanwhile, came from heavy research. The factories existed, and they were only occupied by female workers. That’s a story rarely told: in those factories, women were dying also, because it was such hard labor, they were working with weapons, and so on. We wanted to show that. Through those images, deep out of the archives, we recreated those spaces. It was an excellent set decoration job by our set decorator Ernestine Hipper; those 80 sewing machines we had came not only from the Czech Republic but from all over Europe.

Paul in line to pick up his uniform, unaware of its history.
Paul in line to pick up his uniform, unaware of its history.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned a set of 100 authentic photographs that showed destroyed earth along the battlefield. Did that set also contain images of the factories?
Those came from a different source. With the dystopia of landscape, I was referring to glass plate photographs I found in Belgian archives. The Munich Historical Museum, in the late ’80s, had an exhibition about a woman involved in both the First and Second World Wars. That’s where my assistant found those images of female labor, especially sewing and repairing uniforms.

The opening montage plays out as this ghastly cycle: soldiers’ bodies piled in the back of a truck; bloody uniforms stripped off their backs, cleaned and hung to dry in a factory; women at sewing machines mending bullet holes. Can you walk me through the process of establishing those spaces, far from the battlefield, where the “machinery of war” is still grinding away?
Edward and I looked at archival photographs and agreed on an overall tone, then we [communicated that to] our two brilliant scouts we had in the Czech Republic. Apart from the completely constructed trench and battlefield, the opening sequence is constructed out of six different locations. We had train locations, which basically were trains on tracks plus a visual effects extension, because we wanted a long, long train, which we didn’t have. The establishment of the factory itself, and the washing and sewing places, are all completely separate locations.

Once we found those locations, we always had the same workflow. Ernestine and I proposed a ground floor plan, regarding where we thought those items would be placed and how the extras would behave in the space. In a very intense period of nearly four weeks, which for me was unseen, Edward and James locked themselves into a hotel room and storyboarded the whole film, including the opening sequence. Those storyboards then went back to me, and I adjusted fine details, to make sure all those shots were possible with how you’d actually see them on screen, plus adding ideas such as that shot of low-angled, dripping uniforms. I found a space for that shot and just thought it would look beautiful.

For that image, as well, of a single woman pushing a cart, there was just a hallway, which was a beautiful location we wanted to use. [For the image of the uniforms being washed,] we tinted the water. We tested different colors of artificial blood in water, from the makeup department, but also mixed with paint. There was so much studying how that would take place. It was an artistic exchange that then formed into a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve and how we wanted to shoot it. Knowing what item appears on screen when [the camera is] in close-up made it far easier for me, also. I could put a scenic painter on that item to make it really presentable and detailed on its surface, whilst I couldn’t do this with a whole space.

Production designer Christian Goldbeck. — Credit… Netflix
Production designer Christian Goldbeck. Credit… Netflix

As a production designer, how do you balance architecting spaces for these storyboarded sequences with leaving yourself open to being creative on set, once you’re on location?
Generally speaking, it has to do with curiosity and memory. You see a space, you know a script, you have observed something in the past, and then what you’ve observed suddenly pops into your head in another context.

For example: the hanging, dripping uniforms and also, later in the movie, the hanging uniforms in the weapons factory, those images didn’t come out of archives. I grew up in a very rural area, where there was coal mining going on; sometimes, the coal mines were already closed, and you could visit them as a tourist. When I was quite small, my parents took me there, so I had in mind this very strong image of those coal miners’ clothes all hanging from the ceiling. It scared me shitless as a child. In the script, it’s noted that they wore uniforms, almost as a theme throughout the movie, and so this image came up again. I wanted to include it, because I thought it was scary. It should be scary.

Evaluating your work on All Quiet on the Western Front, what will you look back on most proudly?
Artistically, I’m still very happy about our recreations of the ground. People tend to forget, and it looks so natural, but 100 percent of the ground surface in All Quiet on the Western Front is artificially made by our department, whom I call “the mud crew.” They were the “greens crew,” but by the end I called them “the mud crew.” We tested those surfaces very excessively, not only on the battlefield but all other locations. The surface brings those locations to life. The earth is what links it together. It did not matter if, in the original locations we found, we had lawn, concrete, or gravel. We made sure the destroyed surface carries you through the whole movie. We used 22 different mixtures of earth to create those contrasting particles in it.

In contrast to that, I’m very happy with what I call the “little jewelry box,” our train wagon interior, which was stage-built. The craft of the scenic painters I had the pleasure to work with from Prague’s Barrandov Studios brought this historic train interior to life. It created this contrast between the battlefield’s foot soldiers and the ones who never were in battle.

Dr. No (1962) was where Goldbeck’s love for film all began.
Dr. No (1962) was where Goldbeck’s love for film all began.

Final question: looking back on your career in production design, was there a film that first awakened your passion for filmmaking and led you toward this career path?
My parents, I suppose far too early and far too young, took me to watch Dr. No. Not knowing that Ken Adam had designed it, I was fascinated by this secret world of spies. I remember thinking that was how it is, that it was real. That was the world spies lived in. I was like that American president tricked by the Fort Knox interior [in Goldfinger.] As I grew older, I understood there were people like Ken Adam and Dante Ferretti, and I found out production design is an art form. It is architecture but on a far more playful level. The beautiful thing is that we know our protagonist. We just have to create the spaces around them.

You don’t know this as an architect. The people who occupy your building in the end, you can’t control if they put a very orange curtain into their window, which you might not like. As a production designer, you can control it. The character drives the space. We have 38 scenes in the trench alone, and each scene has a requirement, given what the character does. To design a ground floor plan that serves 38 scenes without requiring heavy repetition of setups was complicated, but it was driven by the movement of the character. That was always key. What is the character doing, and how does the space form around them?... When I was young, I found it very fascinating that you’re able to create a space around a fictional character. That admiration stayed.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is now streaming on Netflix.

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