A Challenging Make-up Test: "All Quiet on the Western Front"
Heike Merker
Make-up & hair designer Heike Merker lands 1st career Oscar nomination for helping to re-create the horrors of World War I--amid COVID protocols

Among the prime challenges posed by All Quiet on the Western Front (Netflix) to make-up and hair designer/SFX designer Heike Merker were:

  • Doing justice to an ambitious period piece that takes us back to World War I.
  • Capturing the authentic look and feel of war’s horrors--and helping to convey characters’ emotional state in the throes of battle.
  • And trying to realize all this in the midst of a modern-day COVID pandemic.

Merker was clearly up to the tasks at hand, scoring high grades critically and from industry colleagues, the latter reflected in her first career Oscar nomination for Best Make-up and Hairstyling, shared with Linda Eisenhamerová, make-up and hair supervisor, Czech Republic. This was but one of  nine nods earned by All Quiet on the Western Front, including for Best Picture, Best International Feature Film (Germany) and spanning such categories as cinematography, adapted screenplay, visual effects, production design, sound and original score.

Based on the noted book of the same title by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front tells us the moving story of a young German soldier in World War I. Paul Bäumer (portrayed by Felix Kammerer) and his comrades experience first-hand how the initial euphoria of war turns into desperation and fear as they fight for their lives, and each other, in the trenches. Directed by Edward Berger, the film takes on the unique perspective of the losing side, the Germans, and the physical and emotional toll exacted on young soldiers facing the brutality of combat--having by sharp contrast gone into the experience with visions of victory, fanfare and glory for Emperor, God and Fatherland.

The make-up and hair had to reflect what these soldiers endured. After an explosion in the trenches, Bäumer was covered in dirt under wooden planks. But Merker’s work had to do more than convey that reality, going beyond to reflect each character’s physical and mental state. Different forms of clay and dirt had to be created as a make-up foundation so that the actors’ faces would reflect the conditions their characters had to deal with--for those young men who survived as well as those who were not so fortunate. Merker had to have the hair and make-up both work in concert with the other disciplines--cinematography, production design, costume design, sound and the like--to paint a complete portrait of the harrowing, seemingly unrelenting experience. Every detail was integral so that viewers could feel and empathize, 

Merker noted that director Berger did not want a conveniently cleaner war movie so that audiences could more clearly see what was happening. He instead aspired to capture the real feeling of war, the suffering, the anguish, the despair and confusion--reflected in muddy, dirt-ridden and obscured faces of kids conscripted to fight and live a nightmare. After an assault which had him burrowed under layers of earth, Bäumer emerges thinner, more tired, dirty with darker teeth. For viewers, it’s unsettling not to recognize the main character who is soiled beyond recognition--but it in turn conveys the unsettling nature of war itself, the madness it entails.

The soldiers in battle circa 1918 had terrible teeth. Georg Korpas made teeth splints for the servicemen to show what war had done to those once pearly whites, yet another of the details that painted a picture of combat's realities.

This level of authenticity in hair and make-up was rooted in extensive research taken on by Merker who tapped into original World War I photographs and films. A key documentary which served as a visual reference was They Shall Not Grow Old. “It gave me a totally different entrance into the time and these soldiers, how they were living, how bad their teeth were, so many elements and details from that era,” related Merker. "For me this documentary became my bible. I took so many reference pictures out of this documentary and that sparked ideas.”

The teeth splints took some getting used to but the actors adjusted seemingly overnight, learning how to speak and eat with them on. Merker had the actors take the splints home so they could practice, processing their dialogue--and they were able to adapt relatively easily.

A modern-day concern emerged with COVID-19 protocols, requiring performers to wear masks in-between takes. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby extras and background players had to be masked but principal actors could instead wear face shields so that their make-up didn’t have to be constantly touched up or replenished. Merker had to be particularly vigilant with shields and masks coming off for scene lensing. She and her compatriots kept a watchful eye to make sure that the authenticity of hair and make-up was preserved and continuity maintained from one take to the next.

Key to the entire process was the collaborative esprit de corps of cast and crew. Merker observed that this all started up top with the director. “Edward was always around and approachable. You could always talk to him about your concerns, ideas, whatever you think, whatever you need, It was wonderful to have that. And the other wonderful part is that he trusts you in your craft. He was open to ideas, to do a test to see if something works or not.”

Merker continued that the coordination and collaboration she enjoyed with Berger, cinematographer James Friend, production designer Christian M. Goldbeck, costume designer Lisy Christi, and all the departments made All Quiet on the Western Front doable. “The group came together and worked together. Always if you thought 'oh my God we have a little issue here,' you could approach anyone. We all came together and found a solution. That was something definitely very special on All Quiet.”

Merker's filmography spans national and international movie projects. Her best-known movies include Batgirl (2022), The Matrix Resurrections (2021), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), John Rabe (2009), Valley of Flowers (2006) and Good Bye, Lenini (2003).

This is the 14th installment of a 17-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print/PDF issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. The 95th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 12.

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