World War II is some of the most heavily trodden ground in cinema history. And it can still be fertile ground for storytelling, as the relatively recent Their Finest and Dunkirk (2017) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016) show. The flip side of this is that because many of cinema’s luminaries have left their mark on this period of history, a middle-of-the road World War II movie is going to be lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately, Burial is just such a film.
The film starts with its best sequence. It opens in 1991, with Anna Marshall (Harriet Walter) watching a news broadcast regarding the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev as President of the Soviet Union. While she appears focused on this, a young man (David Alexander) breaks into her home. But she is not caught unawares. She tases the man and handcuffs him to a radiator. When he wakes up, she identifies him by his tattoos as a neo-Nazi and begins to call the police to turn him in. He tells her that he knows she is really Brana Vasilyeva, a former Russian soldier, and also tells her that he knows she was on a secret mission during the war to cover up evidence that Hitler survived. She confirms her Russian identity and decides to tell him the actual story of what she did at the end of the war.
The film then goes back to tell the story of a young Vasilyeva (Charlotte Vega) and the team of soldiers she is commanding. They are transporting a coffin through German territory, and it must be buried each night before the
company rests. They are being chased by uniformed Nazi soldiers led by Wolfram Graeber (Kristjan Ukskula) as well as being set upon by a German commando force called the Werwolves, who operate using guerilla tactics. The Nazis are chasing the Russian soldiers because they know what is in the coffin– the remains of Adolf Hitler. Stalin wants it so that he can, as the film puts it, “look his enemy in the eye”. The German soldiers want the body back so that they can film propaganda claiming this corpse is not that of Hitler. Along the way, the Russian team encounters an ally in Polish farmer Lukasz (Tom Felton). The film culminates in a standoff in an old church.
The primary problem of the film is with the screenplay written by the film’s director, Ben Parker. Once the story gets rolling in the flashback section, it is lacking in surprises. There is a Russian soldier, Ilyasov (Dan Renton Skinner) who refuses to take orders from a woman, is later revealed to be a rapist, and sells the company out to save his own skin. The other Russians are good hearted, and the Nazis are all screaming caricatures. I certainly don’t need sympathetic Nazis, but if this is all you’re going to do with the characters, why bother? A far more interesting film could have been made focused on the 1991 era of the film, with the wartime moments put in as quick flashbacks. Instead, the 1991 section only serves as a wraparound for a lackluster war movie.
Using the 1991 setting would have been a boon because of the acting as well. Harriet Walter’s performance is the best part of the film. Charlotte Vega is fine with what she’s given, but is underserved by the script. Barry Ward as Russian soldier Tor Oleynik and Dan Renton Skinner acquit themselves well also.
Parker made some decent directorial choices with what I’m assuming was a relatively limited budget. He makes the most of his primarily woodland settings and includes some good action moments. One disappointing decision is the complete lack of consistency with language. Most of the actors speak with British accents in English. There is occasional subtitled Polish or German. Frustratingly, the film often switches back and forth between these options within the same scene. Selecting to either subtitle the film completely or not at all would have made much more sense. While there are some good moments, Burial is, overall, a mediocre World War II movie. If something addressing that era is what you are looking for, there are nearly 80 years of better films available to you.