Volker Bertelmann on scoring All Quiet On The Western Front: “The director said it sounds like Led Zeppelin!"

Volker Bertelmann, who lives the parallel lives of film scoring under his own name and under his artist alias Hauschka (more on that later), has recently completed writing music for one of the biggest German films of all time, Netflix’s seven-time BAFTA award winning (and four time Oscar winning) All Quiet On The Western Front. The Oscar-winning composer talks to Headliner about creating a score that works alongside the film’s huge battle sounds and that supports its gritty, anti-war message, working with the London Contemporary Orchestra and also at his studio in Düsseldorf.

Prior to becoming a prolific film composer using his given name for films such as Ammonite, Lion (earning himself and Dustin O’Halloran an Oscar nomination), and Netflix’s The Old Guard, first came Hauschka. 

It’s the artistic alias he created for himself that he felt was fittingly ambiguous on many levels to go with his music on his solo albums which are mostly characterised by prepared piano techniques (which refers to creating different sounds from the instrument by placing objects like ping pong balls on the strings).

After two decades of struggling to create a career in music, in 2009 his album Salon des Amateurs saw him touring the world and spoken of in the same sentences as fellow composers such as Max Richter.

I’m somebody who’s very trusting of first ideas and instincts.

Bertelmann had been scoring since 2007, mostly on smaller German projects, but it was Lion in particular that led to all sorts of opportunities arriving at his door. The 2016 film stars Dev Patel – alongside Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman – as an orphaned boy in Australia attempting to locate his childhood home in India that he was plucked away from.

It was a wild success, and suddenly the English-speaking world of TV and film was opened up to Bertelmann; shortly after he was scoring projects like the Kit Harington-starring Gunpowder for HBO and the BBC, and he once again teamed up with friend and co-composer Dustin O’Halloran to work on Netflix action flick The Old Guard, a fresh challenge for both who are known mostly for scoring understated indie films.

And while Bertelmann has been busier in recent years using his own name than as Hauschka, life opening up in these post-pandemic times means he certainly isn’t hiding in his studio. 

“Work is requiring that I travel quite a bit at the moment,” he says. “I'm slowly starting to do concerts again. Which is great as I can play in front of audiences, and we can have conversations after the concerts. I’ve also been travelling to do Q&As for All Quiet On The Western Front. We had a BAFTA screening in London, and we’ve also been doing smaller screenings with the cast and crew. It’s been great, especially to see the reactions of English audiences to this film.”

The director said: I want something from you that you've never done.

And while he is keen to release his first full-length Hauschka LP since 2019’s A Different Forest, Bertelmann acknowledges that being able to work from home over the last few years, and also as a respite from relentless touring, has certainly had its benefits. “In 2016, after I worked on Lion, my life changed because I was getting more offers to do film music,” he explains. 

“Looking backwards, it maybe was exactly the right time, because I could establish a workflow for myself before the pandemic happened.

“When you tour over 10,15 years, and I played mostly 100 shows every year, at some point you feel a little bit worn out and you wonder if you can deliver the best work you can, rather than just working because you have to. I think with art, it's a little bit necessary to step back every now and then, to do something else and then go back to what you want to do after some reflection.”

Which is all very interesting, because there’s no denying that he works as a media composer with a very similar fervour. After a quick scroll down his IMDb profile, you get an idea of just how prolific he has been in recent years; in 2022 alone, he wrote the music for four films and two TV series. Even Hans Zimmer, the most in-demand composer working, doesn’t fit this many projects into a single year.

“I’m somebody who’s very trusting of first ideas and instincts,” Bertelmann says of this seemingly superhuman ability. “That’s not to say I’m not shaping the work afterwards, but that trust and working on instincts is very helpful when you have a lot of projects melting into each other.”

That hard work has undoubtedly paid off – Bertelmann was an absolute shoo-in for All Quiet On The Western Front, one of the biggest German-language films yet released, based on the equally famous novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque. 

He is arguably the biggest German composer still based in his homeland, as Zimmer has spent most of his career in California. Since its release, it has broken BAFTA records with 14 award nominations (winning seven on the night including Original Score) for the 2023 ceremony, also racking up nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Original Score for Bertelmann’s efforts, which was one of the four gongs won by the film on the night.

And each one is richly deserved. This is no barnstorming, dopamine-inducing take on the First World War, but one of the grittiest cinematic retellings of either twentieth-century world war thus seen.

In English-speaking countries, at least in the mainstream, we’ve had plenty of films telling the allies’ side of the story, but in All Quiet On The Western Front we see how young German men were convinced by very powerful propaganda that going to the trenches in France was a cool and exciting thing to do, but both the audience and the film’s characters quickly learn how unbearable it was in reality. 

It’s mostly a very young cast for the soldiers, who give incredible performances alongside veterans like Daniel Brühl and Thibault de Montalembert.

I decided to work with an instrument from the 1915 time period. I remembered I had an old harmonium from my grandmother…

Having worked together on Patrick Melrose (which stars Benedict Cumberbatch) and All My Loving, director Edward Berger and Bertelmann’s early conversations for this film set a different tone to previous collaborations. 

The latter explains that the director said, “I want something from you that you've never done.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, thank you. I'll go back home with a big package over my shoulder,” he laughs.

“But it helped me think about my approach, and I decided to work with an instrument from the 1915 time period. I remembered I had an old harmonium from my grandmother, which I’d never really used. (A harmonium is similar to the accordion in that sound is created by pumping air into the instrument, only it is much bigger and heavier). I rolled it into my studio.

“I remember realising the bass on that instrument is so humongous, when you mic it up properly, it felt like a big war horn. I went with little mics inside of the harmonium to record all the sounds it makes. I sent the first idea to Edward and the next day, he called me and said, ‘We're sitting here together, and it sounds like Led Zeppelin!’”

Anyone who knows of Bertelmann’s work either for film or as Hauschka would have been confident in his ability to work on this film respectfully of both the subject matter and the diegetic war sounds which are so key — this wasn’t the film where he was suddenly going to start using big bombastic brass, percussion and dramatic strings.

I sent the first idea to Edward and he called me and said: it sounds like Led Zeppelin!

“The important thing is the conversation with the director,” he says. “It's important that there is a common sense of how music is to be used. The minimal approach is one thing. I think what also was very important was for me to record the whole score with the London Contemporary Orchestra. Because of their work with other indie artists, their sense of sound is different from a lot of other ensembles.”

Despite the fact Bertelmann would have a violinist and cellist visiting his studio to help develop the score in the very beginning, he still gladly called upon Spitfire Audio samples to help in the early stages.

“Spitfire is always somehow making it into the final score, even if only for a few moments,” he explains. “My hard drive is full of their libraries and they’ve become a major part of my creative work. 

"For this film, I felt very good with the Abbey Road libraries, particularly Abbey Road Two, because it has a very ‘chamber orchestra’ feel to it. When you use the Spitfire controllers like the dynamics and vibrato, you can get really close to the sound of a real ensemble. It also has a lot of earthy elements, like the sounds of the air hitting the bow in there, which you would normally use when using samples, and I really love that.”

And when it comes to the nitty gritty editing of All Quiet On The Western Front, he went for “a lot of distortion, so a lot of Eventide plugins, and also for all the weird delays on the drums. Eventide delay plugins are really good because they create this interesting stutter effect, but they are very precise and rhythmical. I also use their Blackhole reverb and Mangledverb constantly.”

We end with Bertelmann transforming into Hauschka, as he gives a mere tease of the much anticipated new Hauschka album. “I started working on it last week,” he reveals. “All I can say is that it will be very different to my last album, A Different Forest. It’s going to be more in my favourite place: the electronic, experimental club music kind of scene.”

Image credits: 

All Quiet On the Western Front: Reiner Bajo (Netflix)

Volker Bertelmann: Carsten Sander