The shockingly brutal and astonishingly beautiful film ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (IM WESTERN NICHTS NUES), based on the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, tells the story of four young German friends facing the horrors of World War I. Though the story has been adapted numerous times for film and television, the 2023 feature film is the first version from Germany, it has already won several prestigious awards, and is nominated for nine (9) Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best International Feature Film and Best Production Design: Production Designer Christian M Goldbeck and Set Decorator Ernestine Hipper SDSA.
We caught up with Ernestine via zoom as she is working on her next project, and she graciously shared in-depth details of the research and making of this astonishing film. Thank you to Ernestine, to Gene Cane, SDSA Executive Director and to Chase Helzer, SDSA Chairman for a fascinating conversation. We have excerpts for you here. You will be amazed at some of the details & process revealed.
Uniforms taken from dead soldiers are washed, patched and mended in a giant warehouse and then assigned to unknowing incoming recruits. Note the paper patterns and propaganda posters tacked to the walls. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Early in the film, there is an astounding sequence where we see clothes that have been stripped from dead soldiers being laundered and resewn to be then given to eager new recruits. Aspects are hauntingly abattoir-like and hundreds of seamstresses toiling side by side in a factory.
Dozens of young women work tirelessly at treadle sewing machines with light mainly coming from the windows. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Piles of uniforms from fallen soldiers, stains removed, delivered from the laundry ready for the sewing women’s next work day. Constant use of machines requires slapdash repair of the sewing cabinets. The huge amount of uniforms needed was procured by Set Decorator Ernestine Hipper SDSA from multiple sources, including clearing out a whole costume house. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix..
“Whatever piece of wardrobe [not being worn by an actor] that we see in this movie was set decoration. Only the piece where the seamstress was sewing on the patch was an original uniform from Costume Designer Lisy Christl. I rented an entire costume house...something they had never done. I told them, ‘Well, they’re going to be used as for props and be drenched in blood...’ Thankfully, it all worked out.”
“For the sewing machines, we had to go to collectors. So our buyers found 10 collectors from which we were able to have about 50 sewing machines. And yet, this was just a small part of what actually occurred. Our research showed us that the real factories were like hundreds of meters long of people, of ladies making uniforms. I mean, it's hundreds of thousands of uniforms these ladies had to make...and grenades! 26 million grenades were built. “
Hand washing the blood and mud from the uniforms leaves the laundry area resembling an abattoir. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Washing room: The arduous task of cleaning the uniforms from soaking in tub sinks, boiling in tubs and wringing. Note the blood-stained undershirts in the sinks to the final washed shirts hanging to dry. Multiple implements are ready for the tasks, buckets, brooms, stir paddles are scattered about the slick wooden floor. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
You can catch a glimpse of Ernestine tweaking the abbatoir-like laundry set in the video here! Video by Assistant Set Decorator Ingo Klier.
Uniforms hanging to dry show a frightening tableau reminiscent of dangling bodies. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
From Ernestine... Barbed wire...
“There's a great story behind the barbed wire. I think it was in 2016. I was in London at The Trading Post theatrical supply, and I saw guys putting rubber spikes on wire with a hot glue gun. There were meters and meters and meters of this wire...and I said, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing here?’
“Well,’ they said, ‘We're making these for the movie 1917.’
And so, I asked, ‘May I take one just to remember, to have a piece of 1917 with me?’
I've had that with me in my little personal workbag all this time. When I started this movie, I had the spike tip in my hand and thought, ‘Ah, isn't this wild? Now I'm actually ordering the same thing.’ We had , I think, 5000 meters of it."
Winter warfare. A forest of barricades and barb wire, while in the background the French forest stands quiet and serene. The weather of the Prague location was surprisingly compliant to the filmmakers needs. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
“The core wheels were used for the areas near the gun posts because that's where the spikes were really close together. On the x-bars...or ‘Spanish riders’ we call them...the spikes were a bit further apart. As I remember, there were at least 400 x-jacks.”
[Editor’s note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below to see more of the barbed wire and the core wheels. You find them in the Prop shop photos.]
The desolate landscape of war, like broken bodies, remnants the log barricades wrapped in barbed wire, crates and sandbags litter the landscape. The pigtail rod with barbed wire and shredded fabric is deeply symbolic. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix. [For more info re: the barbed wire and barricades, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS at the end of the article.]
Battlefield...“It's hard to really see the dimension of the war field—it was 1000 meters long, 400 meters wide. They dug the trenches in November when the ground was frozen, and started creating the wooden trenches in January, and I think we started shooting middle of February. When I walked on that set for the first time, I looked at Christian and said ‘Oh my god, how are we going to do this?’”
“Well of course when you're in it, you just do it. You start focusing. We had an incredible greens department that had been digging for four weeks and then we put the forest in and they made the blood crater, and we dressed it all. The areas where the battle scenes take part needed to have some paths for camera to follow the 300 soldiers constantly. So that was everyone joining together to make things work. And then at the end it was all covered with black soil, three kinds of soils...gray soils and black soils...to make weapons crater fumes. And our scenic painters worked for weeks to create every single shade of gray for the trenches ...I think we used the entire palette of grays!”
Trench warfare... The trench warfare scenes depicted both German and French trenches, each representing elements of their cultural characteristics, both phenomenal huge sets. Here is a a set tour of the German trench. It is amazing! Watch it and then check below about the French trench...and more! Video by Assistant Set Decorator Ingo Klier.
Trench victim: Multiple soldier bodies were manufactured for the film. In fact, there were 50 that were much more graphically portrayed with missing body parts, including partial faces. The fake corpses were hand-painted with eight different shades of blood to accurately depict the wounds. Ernestine painted some herself, and they are exceedingly realistic. We are sparing you those. Here a victim of war lies among the rubble of trenches. Though he Is not real, it does not lessen the tragedy of the losses of war. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
“At some point, Christian and I thought about how we're going to show the differences in the German and the French trenches. So well, of course, when it comes to France, you think of wine, food and excellent cheese, and crockery. And we figured, of course, since the battlefield is in France, they would be supported by the farmers, who would bring them stuff. So, they would have a good supply of food, but the Germans had to wait until a train would be coming to get to bring them supplies, the were given like 250 grams of bread per day and cup of potatoes, and at the end of the war, the trains didn’t come, there was nothing.”
Editor's note: Be sure to click on SHOW MORE PHOTOSbelow for extensive additional images of the field camp, the German headquarters based in a captured French castle, church and square serving as hospitals, derelict bistro, the Armistice train, weapons creation and props...
SHOW MORE PHOTOS
French trenches, kitchen: The remarkably civilized kitchen of the French trenches. Bread, cheese, sausages, pork, butter and wine are in deep contrast to the dirty bread of the Germans. Crockery, bags of grain and even multiple kitchen implements fill the area. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
French trench, detail of a personalized corner: A sign reading ‘Lobster Shelter’ hangs along with cuckoo clock and an empty frame that perhaps held a picture of a loved one from home. Tins and boxes surrounding are actual antiques from the era, sourced by Hipper, this corner a favorite for her. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
German trenches: Dug out of the frozen ground around Prague, the built trenches were a labyrinth of tree trunks and branches reinforcing the dirt of the excavated ground, A sign in German warns of gas attack. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
The German trenches gave little feeling of security or safety in battle. Pigtail posts wrapped in barbed wire are the only line of defense. A bell and list of signals are posted for additional warnings. Notice the cache of iron pigtails under the sign. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Field camp: Gapped wood slat walls are not enough to keep the cold weather out, with only a small stove with unstable venting is all the soldiers have. A milk can steadies the venting pipe. Rolls of blankets and a few supplies reveal the circumstances of the young soldiers at war. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Field camp: Barracks, bunk beds line the walls, at the far wall is a trestle table cum wash area. An oxidized mirror and enameled basin serve as a washstand. A thin crossbeam holds a few toiletries. Hipper found some actual items of the period, others were manufactured by the graphics team from labels of the time found through extensive research. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Field hospital, BTS: Dozens of realistic wounded soldiers and corpses were manufactured for the film, hundreds of blankets were procured. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Hospital: A repurposed church becomes a wartime hospital, with nurses rushing to give aid and comfort to wounded and dying soldiers with only rags, tin buckets and enameled bowls. Lit with only candlelight, pools of blood reflect the meager light. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Detail of hospital. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Town square, set in a former monastery. Real snow from the Prague winter dusts the rubble and remnants of the “French” town. In the back, a derelict bistro. Discarded and broken furniture and rusty bikes and barrels show a sad tableau of the ravages of war. The high pile of chairs was a sculptural feat from Set Decorator Ernestine Hipper SDSA, welded together for continuity. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
A blown-out bistro, once a place of joy and convivial gatherings, now stands shattered and shuttered, serving as a shelter for soldiers awaiting the armistice. The menu board stands frozen in time while a ceiling light fixture flops on the debris-filled floor next to the bullet-riddled counter. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Plunder: A still life of items looted from the vanquished town & bistro, empty wine bottles litter the ground around the victrola and samovar. Discard placed with purpose by the Set Dec crew. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Headquarters of General Friedrichs in France, where the German high command has taken over a French castle. Dining room: the Italianate splendor of marble walls and floors, frescoes, fine china and sumptuous meals juxtapose the German soldiers in muddy, bare wood trenches eating meager rations from dented tin bowls. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
The German general’s headquarters in France. An empty location with all furnishings, accessories and draperies brought in by Set Decorator Ernestine Hipper SDSA. She also dressed the rooms off the main office because they could possibly be seen in background. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
German headquarters, France. A room off the main office, not scripted, but completely dressed. Ernestine points out that Director Edward Berger and Cinematographer James Friend appreciated and often fully shot 360-degree sets. Here, the German army command unit would have used some of the French castle’s furnishings to now hold administrative paperwork. Details abound, including the jury-rigged electrical wiring. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Armistice train: The Allied train is the setting for cease fire negotiations. The elegant car used by delegates to decide the fate of young soldiers on both sides. The French Blue velvet upholstery was custom woven with the emblem of the famous Compagnie de Wagons Lit, creators of the Orient Express. Tufted fabric panels, frosted glass and elegant sconces adorn the walls. Hinged French bistro tables fold away when not needed. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Multi-image Armistice train details: The bee, symbol of both French Royalty and French Industry etched in glass door panels. Rich paneling and fine wood furnishings. Peacock image wall covering symbolizes the strutting nature of the delegates. Porcelain basin and gleaming water taps juxtapose the barbaric conditions put upon the soldiers. Train car is a built set on a Prague soundstage. Images courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
BTS, Train: Armistice negotiations and signing car, another set created on stage. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
BTS, Train: Constructed train car on a sound stage. All departments are involved in creating the realism of cinema. Snow forest backdrop creates the November winter. Note the blinds in the windows indicate this is the Armistice signing car. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Set Dec gold room, aka prop store. All set dressing sits at the ready, from dilapidated vehicles to piles of uniforms, a bay of eating utensils, all period and ready to be aged in the muck of war. Images courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Set Dec storage: Some of the sandbags, filled with sawdust and foam pellets, being dried after use in the field. There were 7000 sandbags used in this film! Photo courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
More gold room items, some set dressing pieces were purchased, but much had to be constructed, such as the barricades known as Spanish riders or cheval de fries, built stained and aged with scenic artistry, then wrapped in barbed wire...wooden ammunition boxes painted and aged after multiple color tests... a sampling of the 10,000 meters of barbed wire, sourced by Hipper in a most serendipitous way. Images courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Weapons: Like the tanks, the few extant cannons of the era are in museums not prop houses, so it was necessary to construct them, under Ernestine’s supervision. To be portable, the cannons were made of wood and plastic undergoing a many steps process to bring the facsimiles to reality. Images courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
The finished cannons in the film. While the cannons and ammunition boxes, and so much more were constructed for the film, some of the mortar rounds visible are real from the time. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.
Road to war: Destroyed and discarded vehicles, including the prized cannons, dead animals and broken dreams litter the roads of battle. A visual reminder of the futility of war. Image courtesy of Hipper & Netflix.