We will never run out of stories to tell about the Holocaust and World War II because the Holocaust and World War II left such a crater that the stories worth telling about both are without end. In The Meaning of Hitler, documentarians Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker examined the Führer’s present-day survival as a symbolic figurehead; their thesis is concerned with contemporary hate movements poisoning democratic nations, but can be applied to pop culture, too. Indiana Jones, Hellboy and Captain America fought Nazis. Kylo Ren is, for all intents and purposes, a Nazi paraphernalia collector. It’s a wide, varied, eclectic list.
Add to that list Ben Parker’s Burial, a Holocaust fiction like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, except solemn in tone and absent the satisfactory sight of Hitler’s head being blasted to pieces. (And then the pieces to pieces.) Burial, like Epperlein and Tucker’s film, wonders what Hitler meant to his partisans even after his death, and presupposes that Stalin charged a cadre of Russian troops to carry the evil bastard’s carcass back to Moscow. Again: A fiction. But Parker has made an interesting fiction, admittedly in need of about 10 more minutes of running time for characters’ sake, plus a couple of tweaks to its framing device.
In the 1990s, Anna Marshall (Harriet Winter) foils a dimwit neo-Nazi prick’s break-in attempt on her home. She has something he wants. He has secret intel she’d rather stay hidden. But his intel is faulty—remember, he’s a dimwit neo-Nazi—so Anna drugs him, binds him and schools him on the time about a half century ago when she, going by her her true name, Brana Vasilyeva (Charlotte Vega), led a team across treacherous territory to bring the ultimate prize, a rotting Hitler, to Stalin. As man-on-a-mission films tend to, the enterprise hits a few bumps along the way: A Werwolf unit, watched over by Führer zealot Wölfram Graeber (Kristjan Üksküla), who knows what Brana and her men are lugging around with them, even though none of them do besides Brana.
Parker’s setup benefits from clear stakes and simplicity. The setting is a peril on its own, because of all the routes to choose while dragging Hitler’s festering corpse, vacant wooded backroads from Berlin to Poland are probably the worst. Cinematographer Rein Kotov keeps Burial’s cast under constant watch, stirring the unnerving sensation that Germany’s trees are surveilling them. Robert Eggers would be impressed. Neither the trees nor the hills have eyes, of course, but the ragtag unit of Nazi fanatics lurking among them do. When Ilyasov (Dan Renton Skinner), one of Brana’s subordinates, decides he’s owed a night of carousing and attempted rape—the Polish barmaid running the nearby tavern solo meets Ilyasov’s standard for the spoils of war—the Werwolf soldiers strike, and Burial gets bloody ghoulish.
The film makes the clever decision to invoke Werwolf’s intended purpose rather than studiously lean toward history; after all, Goebbels’ propaganda machine was part of history, too. In practice, Werwolf was just a series of comical logistical fuck-ups. In the hearts and minds of American soldiers (and, let’s be honest, the media), they were the epitome of Germans’ resolve to resist defeat, down to the last civilian. Burial has good, macabre fun with the myth by decking out the Nazis in wolf-head hats and arming them with hallucinogenic “bombs” made of lichen and mushrooms. Spooky! The effect works nicely, dovetailing the popular Third Reich tactic of “lying” with the popular concept of its high leadership’s obsession with occult and supernatural balderdash.
As an exercise in suspense and genre mimesis, Burial is exceptional. But Parker slacks on the details that function as musculature for the film’s core entertainment. If Brana/Anna is well-realized as an avatar of Jewish justice—Winter’s scenes might be the most pleasurable in the movie for the way she savors each line of retributive exposition—the remaining members of her company lack shading. They merely exist to fulfill a particular military movie stereotype: Ilyasov’s untrustworthy pig; Iossif’s (Bill Milner) over-educated, under-experienced wartime newbie; Lukasz’s (Tom Felton) local sympathizer who may not be letting on everything about his past. Even Tor (Barry Ward), so nicknamed for the one time he killed a Nazi with a hammer, Brana’s staunchest ally among her troops, is a straightforward badass, though Ward’s performance at least suggests combat fatigue.
Burial’s themes are somewhat wearying, too. The temptation to connect the dots between past and present, Hitler and Donald Trump, is great. Trump has, after all, been commonly analyzed as a Hitler-esque figure. Not that anyone should care about Hitler’s feelings, but this is baldly insulting: Hitler was smart. He knew what he was doing, and he almost succeeded in doing it. Trump can’t think further ahead than the thought he’s having at this very second. Burial doesn’t abandon Third Reich philosophy, but Graeber’s third act dialogue explaining his motivations hits more on the Trumpian side: “Spectacle is what the people crave,” he says. “You give them that and they’ll believe whatever you tell them.”
Maybe the line wouldn’t leave the same impression if not for the immediate cut to Brana making her own speech to Tor, urging him to help her finish the mission: If they fail, she argues, Hitler wins. “Men like that don’t die,” she tells Tor. “They fester in the ground, infecting everything.” Hitler would have done anything for power, or, as she puts it, “for winning”—Trump’s favorite word. Fair enough. But keeping the Hitlers and Trumps of the world from winning by rebuking their spirits in cinema isn’t always called for. It isn’t always effective, either. In Burial, the comparison is distracting: Like a fly in the soup, Parker drops unnecessarily overt political commentary into his thriller.
He’s a capable filmmaker, though, and so the allusions don’t stall Burial’s grisly delights. In fact, this two-minute segment precedes the goriest encounter in the entire film, because Parker knows to give people what they crave, and what people crave—what they will always crave—is the chance to watch Nazis get obliterated. Pit stops for forced social commentary aside, that’s what we get.
Director: Ben Parker
Writer: Ben Parker
Starring: Charlotte Vega, Barry Ward, Tom Felton, Harriet Winter, Kristjan Üksküla, Bill Milner, Dan Renton Skinner
Release Date: September 2, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.