Heike Merker didn’t think about working on a war film until Edward Berger’s German adaptation of the World War I drama “All Quiet on the Western Front” came along. The project itself and the possibility of collaborating with her clothing designer friend Lisy Christl immediately compelled the hair and makeup designer, known for her work on films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Matrix Resurrections”.
“I felt like it was such a good group, so it was like, ‘Well, let’s do it,'” recalls Merker, speaking over Zoom from Berlin. “I’ve done so many different films, and this felt like a different subject.”
To prepare for the film, which was shot in Prague last spring, Merker did extensive research. She looked at previous versions of the story, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, as well as other films set during the time period. Her biggest inspiration came from documentaries, especially Peter Jackson’s 2018 work “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which compiled archival footage from the war.
“This one basically opened so many doors for me, and I finally had the right material,” says Merker. “What I saw was unbelievable. I took the whole movie for reference because it was so good. Once I had that, I started testing and preparing the actual looks (makeup).
The film follows a young soldier, Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), during the war, with most of the scenes taking place in the trenches and battlefields. The reality was dirty and wet, meaning that Paul and his fellow soldiers spend most of the film covered in layers of dirt, mud and blood. Merker couldn’t use actual mud, as it would damage the actors’ skin, so she looked for stage makeup options, bought Dead Sea face masks and created new concoctions from matcha powder and macadamia powder.
“I started with mud and dirt products that already exist in the makeup world and experimented with how to layer them,” says Merker. “What does the color do if it rains? Is the color coming off? How do the layers look? Then he was like, ‘Okay, so we don’t have enough of those colors. We need more colors!’ I created a range of colors in mud in all consistencies, from a very thin liquid to a slimy version to a muddier clay. We had about 10 different colors, each with a different consistency.”
The mud was applied to the faces, hair, neck, hands of the actors and any other body part that showed during a particular scene. While the main cast spent an hour or two in hair and makeup each morning before shooting, Merker continued to apply and reapply the mud throughout the day. She was positioned close to the camera during each shot to ensure continuity of looks, which was a huge challenge, as the film was not shot chronologically. She and Berger also had spray bottles filled with fake blood ready during battle scenes. But for all the chaos of the war series, Merker was ultimately very purposeful in her application of the mud and dirt.
“I always treated the whole film as a painting,” she says. “Sometimes when you try to replicate something from a picture, for example when you have a really big moustache, and you put it into a film, it looks awful and fake. There is a way to look at reality but not copy it. You have to put something else on top or bring something else with you.”
In one particular scene, as Paul confronts and ultimately kills a French soldier, Merker used the mud to convey the duality of the characters as both heroes and villains. The dried gray mud was caked across half of his face, creating two literal faces.
“He showed the situation with those two people,” says Merker. “Something very special happened when we decided to put that big series like an elephant on top of layer on top of layer. And the movement of the camera as he looked up created a great picture.”
Some of the film’s characters, such as Daniel Brühl’s Matthias Erzberger, are based on real historical figures, but Merker didn’t want to get too caught up in literal replicas. Instead, she balanced real details with dramatic ones. With Brühl, for example, Merker recreated Erzberger’s actual hairstyle and mustache but created sweat lines on his neck and hands to emphasize the character’s nervous state. Brühl also pulled his head into his collar to create the impression of a double chin without prosthetics.
“There are some angles where he looked so much like Daniel,” says Merker. “It’s very interesting. We used every little element to give (depth) to that character.”
For Merker, each nomination was an unexpected surprise. She’s not sure why the film struck such a chord with audiences, but she suspects it’s a deeply anti-war war film.
“There is no hero, really,” she says. “It’s not that they’re killing somebody and they feel proud about it. The attitude is different. And with the war in Ukraine, it might bring you into the situation in a way that it is now. It’s a war film, but it’s also very poetic.”