Burial (2022)

Burial first published by SciFiNow

Burial opens in London, during the Christmas of 1991, at a particularly momentous turn of global events. For as the TV news reports Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation as the President of the Soviet Union in what appears to be the end of the Cold War and even the end of history (although we know better now with hindsight), young neo-Nazi Karl Edwards (David Alexander) breaks into the home of old Anna Marshall (Harriet Walter). What at first seems a straightforward anti-Semitic assault turns out to be something more. For Karl knows that Anna is the former Soviet officer Brana Vasilyeva Brodskaya, and believes that she knows, and has long buried, “the real history, the truth” that Adolf Hitler escaped the Second World War with his life. Easily overpowering this home invader, Anna/Brana tells her captive audience (which includes us) a different story of her experiences at the very end of the war – although as she had suggested some 46 years earlier, and as Karl’s presence in her house now proves, “The war is not over.” Perhaps it never is.

Most of Burial, written and directed by Ben Parker (The Chamber, 2016), unfolds in 1945, as young Brana (Charlotte Vega) is part of a small Russian outfit assigned secretly to transport a crate from recently occupied Berlin to Moscow, ostensibly so that Stalin can see its contents with his own eyes. Those contents are all at once a grubby memento mori demonstrating the rotten banality of a war that cost millions of people their lives, and a powerful symbol whose narrative meaning different parties are desperate to control and manipulate to their own ends. En route, the Russians’ truck gets bogged down in a Polish forest, and their commander is killed by a Werwolf sniper. So as their brutish new leader Captain Vadim Ilyasov (Dan Renton Skinner) heads off-mission with three men to the nearest village for the raping and pillaging he believes is his right of war, Brana stays behind to guard the crate with the tough, experienced soldier Mikhail Oleynik (Barry Ward) and two others. 

In many ways, this unit is no more divided than its individual members, caught in a conflict not just between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, but between animalistic appetites and high ideals. Mikhail is a vicious monster in combat, nicknamed Tor after killing an SS officer with a hammer in Stalingrad, but he is also a man of deep principle who can see the uncomfortable parallels between Nazi atrocities and his own side’s actions. Brana too, earnest and committed to her cause, finds that she has more in common with the local Lukasz (Tom Felton) – a Volksdesutsche persecuted by Germans and Russians alike – than with her own commanding officer. Meanwhile Werwolf guerrillas in the woods, some wearing the skins of wolves and boars as both terror tactic and overt emblem of their bestiality, have been commandeered by SS surgeon Wolfram Graeber (Kristjan Üksküla) to seize the crate and to rewrite a history in which they are fast shifting from victors to losers. 

With its bloody forest skirmishes and its impossible acts of derring-do against a literal Nazi enemy, Burial might have the feel of a plucky, against-all-odds war story – and its chase-the-relic plotting even, to a degree, conjures the spirit of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Yet the central presence of Brana in these events, and her jaded female voice narrating them, prevents this ever becoming a mere boys’ own adventure or celebration of violence. On the contrary, this is about the endlessness of war, and the stories we endlessly tell about it, some to move masses, some for purely private consumption and reflection. It may be an alternative, fictionalised history, but it is also concerned precisely with the preservation and precarity of truth, in a world where there will always be new Nazis, and new resistance to them, still fighting over the bones of a past long dead.  

strap: Ben Parker’s end-of-war movie casts a jaded eye over the emptiness of secrets, the banality of evil and the eternal return of history

Anton Bitel