There was a point during the filming of Netflix All quiet on the west front when Felix Kammerer began to question his life choices.
“We were in a field, in knee-deep mud, and it was pouring rain,” recalls the young Austrian actor, recounting his experience in Edward Berger’s World War I drama, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel from 1928, which is Germany’s contender for the best international film Oscar. “We had these costumes, these woolen uniforms, that would just suck the moisture out. After the day of shooting, we weighed them and they weighed 100lbs! Running through mud, 14 hours a day, with 100 pounds on my back. Again and again and again.”
Every night, he says, he’d collapse into bed, get four hours of sleep, and wake up in pain. Only to get up at 3am to do it all over again. “It was three and a half months of the most intense and physically demanding work she has ever done.”
Kammerer is no debutant: he has spent his career on stage, most recently as an ensemble member of Vienna’s acclaimed Burgtheater. “The theater is my home,” he says. “My parents are both opera singers, so I basically grew up under the lights.”
But before he was hired All Quiet to play enthusiastic recruit Paul Bäumer, whose romantic wartime ideas do not survive life in the trenches, the 27-year-old had never stood in front of a camera before. He got the role later All Quiet producer Malte Grunert took the advice of his partner, a playwright at the Burgtheater, to take a look at this young Austrian that all of Vienna was talking about. Over the course of the film, Kammerer transforms Bäumer from a naïve naive to a battle-hardened cynic, unable to deny the brutal reality of war and the utter nonsense of it.
“I think a lot of people today don’t remember what World War I was really about,” he says. “World War II is much more present, especially in the movies. But World War I is more relevant than ever, because it was the first machine-led war. The first time they used tanks, flamethrowers, gas, machine guns. It was the first time that the killing adopted an almost factory mechanics, people were really thrown into the meat grinder.
Adapting to the mechanics of filmmaking was a challenge. “In the theatre, you tell a story from start to finish, you always know where you are in the arc,” she observes. “The film is all cut out: you shoot the end of a scene and three weeks later you shoot the beginning. I was terrified that my performance, once it was put together, would make no sense. For filming, Kammerer came up with his own battle plan in the form of an Excel spreadsheet that plotted and assigned an “energy level” to each scene.
“It looks like a tax return with a cost-benefit calculation,” she says with a laugh. “But it really helps me because I can say, ‘In the scene we’re going to do tomorrow, I have to be at 75 energy and go up, the next scene is going to 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 intention of leaving the theater. “Making films has made me realize how comfortable I feel on stage,” she says. “No matter how intense things get on stage, an hour later you’re back out and it’s warm and it’s dry.”
This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.