Volker Bertelmann, better known by his stage name Hauschka, lifted the Best Original Score Oscar on Sunday for his masterful and evocative work on All Quiet on the Western Front. In doing so, he trumped Academy royalty John Williams, Justin Hurwitz and even Son Lux, who scored the big winner of the 2023 Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All At Once.

And his win was well-deserved. His unusual accompaniment perfectly transmitted the anti-war message of All Quiet, the latest film adaptation of the seminal 1929 novel.

The most recognisable of the film’s musical themes is a powerful three-note motif. It emerges at the beginning of the film as we witness the pragmatic horror of dead soldiers' uniforms being recycled from the battlefield and patched up for new recruits. 

Though you could easily mistake the sound for a synthesizer blasting from a PA, it is, in fact, played on Bertelmann’s great-grandmother's harmonium (reed organ) via a distorted guitar amp. The sound, described as “like a machine that has no emotions” by Bertelmann, resonates throughout the entire score, symbolising the insatiable war machine.

In contrast, Bertelmann intersperses moments of calm and light within his score. Just before the film’s characters endure their first artillery barrage, violin arpeggios provide a glimmer of hope and desire to live, amid the carnage. 

These two thematic "poles", as Bertelmann puts it, create a moving soundscape that delves deep into the broader themes of the film.

His intention was to create a balance between darkness and light in his score, and was cautious not to infuse too much heroism or pathos into the music, opting instead to maintain a sense of distance. This delicate balance is evident when comparing tracks featuring the three-note harmonium motif with those highlighting the sorrowful violin theme.

The tracks that feature the harmonium riff tend towards higher energies, triggering Dark and Scary tags, while the string theme triggers lower energies with Calm and Sentimental tags.

A departure from other war films

The sorrowful and mechanical soundtrack to All Quiet contrasts starkly with the heroic soundtracks of many other war films. Often, these films glorify war and paint armed combatants as heroes, which is reflected in their grandiose and triumphant scores. By consciously avoiding the pathos and heroism often associated with war movie soundtracks, Bertelmann's score underlines the film's anti-war message.

But what does heroism sound like? A good proxy might be the Inspiring mood tag. For example, when we analyse the tracks from Saving Private Ryan’s soundtrack using Musiio’s tagging AI, Inspiring is the most common mood tag (36% of mood tags). Three-quarters of the Spielberg classic’s musical cues are in a major key, suggesting a more triumphant approach to the subject matter. The Saving Private Ryan soundtrack also has a good portion of Dramatic mood tags (15% of all tags), the presence of which equates to traditional scoring of on-screen action sequences.

Meanwhile, All Quiet’s theme-based score, taken as a whole, triggers Dark, Scary and Sentimental moods, with 95% of the music being in a minor key. 

While Saving Private Ryan boasts a powerful and heroic score that stirs the audience's emotions and rallies them behind the protagonists, Bertelmann's work in All Quiet serves as a sobering reminder of the harsh realities of war and loss. It lets the audience react as they wish rather than being pushed. 

Bertelmann's soundtrack is not an island, though. It is possibly more a logical end-point in the development of war (or anti-war) film scores. All Quiet bears tonal similarities to 1917 – both have electronic, ambient and classic elements, as well as Dark and Scary moods. However, it truly stands apart in its intentional absence of heroic (or Inspiring) themes, reflecting the film's anti-war message. 

By expertly weaving together two distinct themes, Bertelmann has created a haunting and unforgettable score that reminds us that music needn’t always be tied to every hit point of an action sequence. Moreover, diverging from scoring tradition can have a profound impact on the audience and fundamentally challenge how we feel about long-held narratives.

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