Edward Berger
Photo by Gareth Cattermole

Edward Berger: “All it takes is a good script”

Short Profile

Name: Edward Berger
DOB: 1970
Place of birth: Wolfsburg, Germany
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter

Edward Berger's film All Quiet on the Western Front is streaming on Netflix now.

Mr. Berger, although your film style is diverse, would you say you have a signature?

Perhaps what my films have in common is that I'm always looking for a challenge. And above all, I'm always somehow subjective about the characters. That started with Jack, where the camera was really only on the boy's face, because I didn't want to give the audience any choice but to identify with him. There were no wide shots that allowed you to get away from him, no counter shots on other characters, at most a pan to show what he's seeing or who he's talking to. If you are consistent in that, the audience ends up having no choice but to go along with this boy.

That singular focus is present in your widely celebrated new film All Quiet on the Western Front as well, isn’t it?

Yes, there is a similarly narrow perspective now with Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front. The film lives and dies with the face of Felix Kammerer.  Everything else is just there to support this great actor and to give the viewers the feeling of what's going on in this boy's gut right now.

“I consciously look for hurdles that I have to jump over, even if I might break them, simply so that I try as hard as possible.”

What was it that attracted you to a project like that one? It was certainly your largest and most elaborate to date.

I always want to be challenged and do things I've never done before, things that I'm afraid of because there is the potential that I’d fail. That was the case here, of course. I already had it in my head that this could also go badly wrong. But I consciously look for hurdles that I have to jump over, even if I might break them, simply so that I try as hard as possible.

Was there also a challenge in the storytelling? Did you feel a responsibility to represent these events in a certain way?

We here in Germany are familiar with this perspective on war stories and know about our guilt. I myself, at least, carry it around with me every day, I think about it and can’t just set it aside. And I don't want to set it aside, because it is part of our history. I found it interesting to convey this feeling to an audience abroad as well. When I watch English and American war films, I always notice that there are heroes. They defeat the enemy, have a mission to complete, they have to overcome obstacles or save someone, and at the end they can be celebrated for their heroic deeds. We can't tell stories like that from Germany, and I wanted to use All Quiet on the Western Front to convey to other countries, why that isn’t possible.

Do you feel like that message has been successfully conveyed to international critics?

Well, I don't follow the reactions. I deliberately don't read reviews, because if you take the positive ones seriously, you will have to do the same for the negative ones. The positive ones make you vain, the others hurt, neither of which is conducive to the next film. That's why I decided several years ago to stop paying attention to these things. But I can say that at screenings in England and the US, the best moments for me were when viewers came up to me afterwards and said that they had never thought about this before. The film made them reassess their position and perhaps they came to the realization that there are no heroes in war, only losers.

Unlike many of your German peers, you also did some of your studies in America. Has that helped give you an edge with international audiences?

At least that's what I aspire to! I like the American way very much. When I visited a university friend of mine, he had a 100-year-old photo of a man with a spade and a covered wagon on his mantelpiece, he told me it was his great grandfather going west! This myth of the pioneer setting out into the unknown still lives on in the American spirit today. My grandfather, on the other hand, is shown in photos in a suit in front of a centuries-old house in Vienna. It’s emblematic of conservatism, of holding on to old values and preserving, not of looking forward. Of course, I’m European and would like to continue living here. But I like this American spirit of departure, that kind of positive thinking that anything is possible.

The American Dream…

Right, the entrepreneurial spirit of tackling something, of moving on and having ambitions. It's not surprising that a majority of companies that make great new inventions mostly come from America, where people take risks. And I've always found that attitude inspiring.

“All it takes is a good script and a clear, strong sense of style. We just have to dare and we have to really want to do it.”

How do you keep that aspirational mindset when you’re living and working in Germany?

To be honest, by getting out. After university in America, I worked at a really innovative company called Good Machine in the US, which made really great films, with guys like Ang Lee, and Todd Haynes. I learned a lot there and knew that those were exactly the kind of films that I wanted to make. But then I had my first film financed in Germany. I enjoyed making it, it was well received and I was able to make my second one right away, for much more money. But it turned out rather mediocre, which threw me into a bit of a crisis.

You’ve also spent time working in television — I can imagine that was even more restrictive to your vision.

Exactly. I've always tried to bring my own voice into my television work and tried new things, but German television is primarily interested in training the next directors of something likeTatort, a Sunday night crime film series that has aired for decades, That's why it happens very quickly, you make compromise after compromise… Most of the time I was happy with these films. But then I was disappointed when they were on TV and the next day it was all over because the next one aired. These films don't linger. They have no shelf life because they ship out and one chases the next. At some point I decided to just not continue with it because I would have been miserable. I needed that cut and had to go out and try to make my own films again.

That certainly paid off; there have never been so many nominations for a German film as there are for All Quiet on the Western Front.

It sounds like a great honor, but I don't know if I can claim it. I hope at least that this recognition abroad will create the self-confidence that something like this can be done, and encourages people to simply try something. A film like Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola could just as well have been made by a German director in Berlin. All it takes is a good script and a clear, strong sense of style. We just have to dare and we have to really want to do it. If All Quiet on the Western Front can contribute just a little to the feeling that we can do everything we set our minds to do, then that would be an incredible honor.