There was a point while shooting Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front when Felix Kammerer began to question his life choices.
“We were in a field, knee-deep in mud, and it was pouring rain,” recalls the young Austrian actor, recounting his experience on Edward Berger’s World War I drama, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 classic anti-war novel, which is Germany’s contender for the best international film Oscar. “We had these costumes, these wool uniforms, that would just suck up the wet. After the day’s shoot, we’d weigh them and they’d be 100 pounds! Running through the mud, 14 hours a day, with 100 pounds on your back. Again and again and again.”
Every night, he says, he’d collapse in bed, sleep four hours and wake up, sore and aching. Only to get up at 3 am to do it all again. “It was three and a half months of the most intense, physically demanding work I’d ever done.”
Kammerer’s no rookie: He has spent his career onstage, most recently as an ensemble member of Vienna’s acclaimed Burgtheater. “Theater’s my home,” he says. “My parents are both opera singers, so I basically grew up under the lights.”
But before he was cast in All Quiet to play the gung-ho recruit Paul Bäumer, whose romantic ideas of warfare do not survive life in the trenches, the 27-year-old had never stepped in front of a camera. He landed the role later All Quiet producer Malte Grunert took the advice of his partner, a dramaturge at the Burgtheater, to check out this young Austrian guy who all of Vienna was talking about. Over the course of the film, Kammerer transforms Bäumer from fresh-faced naïf to battle-hardened cynic, unable to deny the brutal reality of war and its utter senselessness.
“I think a lot of people today don’t remember what World War I was really about,” he says. “The Second World War is much more present, especially in movies. But World War I is more relevant than ever, because it was the first machine-driven war. The first time they used tanks, flamethrowers, gas, machine guns. It was the first time killing adopted almost factory-like mechanics, people being really thrown into the meat grinder.”
Adjusting to the mechanics of film production was a challenge. “In theater, you tell a story from beginning to end, you always know where you are on the story arc,” he notes. “Film is all cut up: You shoot the end of a scene and pick up the beginning three weeks later. I was terrified that my performance, when cut together, wouldn’t make sense.” For the shoot, Kammerer drew up his own battle plan in the form of an Excel spreadsheet that tracked and assigned an “energy level” to every scene.
“It looks like a tax return with a cost-benefit calculation,” he says with a laugh. “But it really helps me because I can say: ‘At the scene we’re doing tomorrow, I need to be at energy 75 and going up, the next scene will be 112 and then down to 26.’ It makes it much easier to adjust my performance.”
But even as his film career takes off, Kammerer has no plans to leave theater. “Making movies has made me realize how comfortable I feel onstage,” he says. “No matter how intense things are onstage, an hour later, you’re out again and it’s warm and it’s dry.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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