Berlin 1945, in an underground bunker shielded from the war, the would-be world dictator took a coward’s way out and shot himself in the head rather than face his crimes. Sadly, this supposed example of masculinity and human superiority which created the ideals of the Third Reich remains a symbol that proliferates beyond the walls of Germany today. In America, we see these latent (and prominent) ideals in the Klu Klux Klan, the Proud Boys, and the modern GOP. Why? Just as heroes transcend into symbols through stories, Hitler, too, become a symbol in death. Rather than see his cowardice as the act of a small man who murdered innocents without actual cause, some saw it as the beginning of a mythos. This is the essence of writer/director Ben Parker’s (The Chamber) new film, Burial, which finds a group of Russian soldiers transporting the body of Hitler to Stalin. The concept of symbols or ideas carrying on after a leader’s demise exists in virtually all cultures, but there are some which should cease for the better of all upon their final breath.
Assigned the secret mission by Stalin himself, Russian intelligence officer Brana Brodskaya (Charlotte Vega) is tasked with the return of a casket carrying secret contents. Only she and two other members of the small unit know what’s inside or understand the gravity of what’s being asked of them as they journey without protection or support from Berlin to Stalin in Russia. Though the war is over, the lands Brana and her team travel through contain threats that have not quite given up on Hitler’s ideals, threats which know the surrounding woods well and understand the opportunity before them to proliferate the Third Reich’s legacy.
Before getting into the film proper, please allow some context on from where my reaction to this film derives. I grew up in a small town in Virginia, brought up within the Reform community of Judaism, and raised by a historian. My grandfathers both fought in World War II and, though I only met my paternal one, Sigmund Davidson, he shared first-hand stories of what it was like while stationed in France (before an injury sent him home). I’ve also sat with and listened to stories from Holocaust survivors who lived in my town. Hearing these stories from my grandfather helped me to understand who he was and understand his experience with war, which I have yet, thankfully, to know. In contrast, listening to the stories of the survivors was about not forgetting what happened to the millions of people who were murdered simply by not meeting the Aryan standard. It was about not forgetting what evil looks like and being able to recognize the signs when they appear again. It was about not forgetting, because the legacy of evil often prevails in darkness despite the shining of light. So when I heard of Parker’s story, of a Russian soldier protecting Hitler’s corpse, I found myself conflicted. On the one hand, there’s a morbid curiosity as to what kind of story Burial is — is it allegiance or a feint? Whereas, on the other hand, one should not promote the messages of hate which continue to this day in the U.S., United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Seeing that Tom Felton (the Harry Potter series) is attached, an actor whose public persona seems one of kindness and generosity, pushed me toward benevolence on the part of Parker and, to his credit, Burial is deeper and more profound than one might expect.
Creating this piece of historical fiction, Parker clearly did his research. There was a Russian intelligence officer, Elena Moiseevna Rzhevskaya, who was part of the identification of Hitler’s remains. Additionally, German forces did include a group known as Wehrwolf fighters, who worked to slow Allied forces in German-controlled areas, like the part of Poland the characters find themselves in. Parker seems to have combined the two to create his tale of violence and pain. By tweaking just a few elements, Parker is able to place his Elena-surrogate, Brana, in the same place with the same job while giving her a larger presence and creating tension by shifting the instructions of her unit. Given the fact that Russia was an ally of Germany at the start of World War II, creating a tale in which Stalin wishes to preserve Hitler’s corpse and then using that as a macguffin all the other action surrounds generates emotional complexity within the audience. Add in the fact that Brana, like Elena, is Jewish, and Parker adds additional entanglements which cause consternation, both within the character and the audience alike. This specifically is what makes Burial worth the watch as the narrative is single-minded and straightforward, yet never falls under the weight of all the complex concepts it’s tied up with: patriotism, nationalism, personal identity, the tolls of war, and civilians vs. soldiers, to name a few.
Another feather in its cap is the application of violence. This is a war film, after all, and, to a point, few have bloodless hands. Each sequence in which Brana’s team find themselves warding off trouble wisely uses the terrain to its advantage, presenting less a sense of brashness or ignorance, which makes the Wehrwolf soldiers and the Russian unit equal threats. Where Brana finds herself in trouble isn’t just that there’s a member of her team without honor or commitment, it’s that she must protect the package over herself. This means that where others would flee, find cover, or otherwise create a strong defense, there’s always something slowing her down. Vega’s performance is truly spectacular here as we can visibly see her internalize her struggle of personal safety versus her mission and what this mission means to her as an individual. As expected in a film like this, a character like Brana’s comes to a breaking point and Vega brings the hammer down on it, shattering whatever the audience might’ve conceived in their mind, whatever judgment they’d cast down from the start. Though Felton as a member of the Polish town Brana finds herself in is strong and Barry Ward as unit member Mikhail “Tor” Oleynik is the MVP of the film, this is Vega’s film and her constant commitment to the greater idea of Burial is what makes the film powerful.
Of the flaws in the film, the one worth mentioning is the insistence that the characters all speak English. Burial isn’t the first film to have foreign-based characters in a foreign film speak English when it shouldn’t be their native tongue, but what makes the choice odd is the frequency by which the characters throughout the film, no matter the country of origin, switch between English and saying phrases in their native language. Or, more frustratingly, when they ask the other, in English, if they speak Russian to a non-Russian or German to a non-German. One can appreciate the consistency, but it’s almost comical, pushing things toward a farce, with the frequency in which characters are speaking a language we understand but they themselves don’t seem to. It breaks the veil of illusion each time it happens, whereas, had the cast spoken in the language native to their characters, the mirage of cinema would’ve more strongly held together.
It’s never a good sign when a government starts to tell the people what’s right and what’s wrong on a moral level versus a lawful one. Under Hitler’s reign, the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, homosexuals, immigrants, and Jews were led to the slaughter because they were easy targets on which to place the blame of the fall of Germany (skipping over the whole World War I involvement, part). Hitler banned books, music, and art. He told people what to think and where to go. In the early days of COVID-19 in the U.S., the messaging from the GOP was that COVID only killed the elderly and disabled, so why are we concerned? Now, that same group is putting together laws to detransition adults, to enable adults to inspect the genitals of children, and prevent life-saving medical procedures for women. As someone raised in a community where vigilance is the key to survival, I’ve been terrified since 2016 and remain disquieted. Parker taps into this as the characters of Burial are striving to either put the final nail in Hitler’s regime or prolong his message as long as possible. We need only look around at the state of things to see that fiction is meeting reality. It may be historical fiction, but that doesn’t mean Parker’s theoretical words from 1945 don’t resonant today.
In theaters and on VOD September 2nd, 2022.
For more information, head to IFC Films’s official Burial webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.