When Edward Berger set out to make “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the first German film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1929 antiwar novel, he knew he had big shoes to fill—or rather, boots. Whichever actor was chosen to play protagonist Paul Bäumer, a 17-year-old student who enlists in the Imperial German Army in the final months of World War I, would need to carry the film on his shoulders. Nailing the casting of this pivotal role was one of Berger’s greatest challenges. Thankfully, the director–co-writer found the perfect fit in stage-trained performer Felix Kammerer.
“I knew I wanted a new actor—a new face,” Berger says. “Felix has a very studious face. You know, if you were to do this film in America, you would hire, like, Brad Pitt.” But Berger didn’t set out to find the kind of actor (or face) who would immediately scream “movie star.” The role of Paul required a performer who could bring physicality and realism to the monumental defeat Remarque’s novel depicts—and also to the director’s vision, which infuses beauty into the grim reality of trench warfare.
He also needed an actor who could evoke both Paul’s youthful innocence when he first joins the army and his feeling of profound emptiness by the end of the film. It was during the lengthy audition process when Berger and Kammerer uncovered the resilience that the actor would need to depict.
The filmmaker was immediately taken with the young actor upon seeing his photo, and even more so after his first screen test. But he acknowledged that there was work to be done. “In [Kammerer’s] first audition—and I don’t know if it was nerves—he was doing this thing with his jaw,” Berger recalls. “I didn’t see it, but my casting director did.”
Wary of giving a newcomer too many notes on his audition, Berger let the CD take the lead. They showed Kammerer the footage and pointed out the tic, gently nudging him to avoid doing it again in his his next audition; and he did. With each callback, in fact, Berger watched the actor transform his dancer-like grace into weighty, rugged physicality—particularly once he donned Paul’s boots and uniform.
After months of auditions, Kammerer, then 24, got the call every performer dreams of. “He was so happy [that] he screamed,” Berger says. “But as soon as he hung up the phone, he got worried.” He’d landed the part—but now, he’d have to actually play it.
Berger watched Kammerer learn as filming progressed, especially when it came to making adjustments to his performance. He cites an early scene that introduces Paul and his three friends as they giddily join up, fueled by fantasies of fighting bravely for their country. Berger wanted the sequence to be fluid, framing the four young men in a wide shot.
“I wanted to practice the shot, so we rehearsed it in a ballroom,” he recalls. “I had the entire location in my head, and I was shooting with my iPhone. We run the scene, and Felix and the boys get together. And then Felix, because he’s focused on Paul seeing his friends, turns his back to me—to the phone I’m holding, to the camera. I had to remind him that he needed to feel my camera, even over his shoulder. So we do the next take, and he remembers.”
Rather than framing these moments as challenges he and Kammerer had to overcome, Berger thinks of them as examples of how he approaches working with actors in general; he relishes the chance to foster growth through collaboration.
“You have to trust that you’re working together on this,” he says, “that you’re learning and you’re discovering it as you go along.”
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of Backstage Magazine.