Thursday, September 01, 2022

Burial: Stalin’s Macabre Trophy

The Soviets had a strange corpse fetish. To this day, you can still gawk at Lenin’s embalmed body in Red Square. Alas, poor Gorby probably won’t be getting that treatment. Stalin had something very ghoulishly different in mind for Hitler’s corpse. However, secretly ferrying it from Berlin to Moscow will be quite a tricky assignment for Brana Vasilyeva and her comrades in director-screenwriter Ben Parker’s Burial, which opens tomorrow in New York.

For a skinhead punk, rumors of Hitler’s body possibly surviving someplace were too tantalizing to ignore, even in 1991. However, when he breaks into elderly Vasilyeva’s London townhouse, she is the one who has the drop on him. When he comes to, handcuffed to the radiator, she decides to tell him the full story, because she knows it isn’t what he wants to hear.

Only Vasilyeva and her commander knew the exact nature of their mission. They are supposed to sneak Hitler’s body into the USSR clandestinely, but that means they will have to fight their way through the self-styled “Werewolves,” remnants of the National Socialist occupiers engaging into scorched-earth guerilla warfare. Unfortunately, when Vasilyeva’s commanding officer is killed in combat, the next senior officer is the cretinous Captain Ilyasov, who is more interested in rape and plunder than completing a mission he was not briefed on.

It is because of Soviet soldiers like him that the Poles are so hostile to the advancing Russians. Lukasz is a perfect case in point. As an ethnic German Pole, he suffered at the hands of both the Germans and the Soviets. However, Vasilyev manages to win his trust, but it does not extend very far beyond her and her trusted subordinate officer Tor Oleynik (so dubbed in honor of the Norse god, because of what he did to some Germans with a hammer).

Burial, you have to feel sympathy for the Polish people. Time and again, Vasilyeva and Oleynik are confronted with the brutality of their own fellow Soviets and the resulting bitterness festering in the civilians, whose help they need. Parker never sugar-coats the brutality of either regime, openly suggesting something close to equivalency between them. Although this is a war film, it gets pretty intense and even spooky, given the way the “Werewolves” take their nickname to heart (and their weaponized use of hallucinogenic drugs).

Charlotte Vega makes a suitably quiet but steely action lead as Vasilyeva, but she is still no match for Harriet Walter, playing her hardnosed, butt-kicking senior citizen analog. (Reportedly, Dame Diana Rigg was originally cast in the role before her death, leaving some big shoes to fill, but Walter acquits herself impressively.)

As Oleynik, Barry Ward also brings a lot of grit and a basic human disgust for his compatriots’ war crimes. (These Russians are pretty darned British sounding, but so be it). However, Dan Renton makes a much more viscerally intense, in-your-face villain as the morally reprehensible Ilyasov than the fanatical leader of the Werewolves, who comes across as a garden variety movie Nazi villain.

is most certainly a genre film at heart, but in some ways, it rather symbolically serves as a microcosm of the Polish war experience. The violence is sometimes crazy and unhinged, but it is brutally honest in its portrayal of the savagery of the rival occupying powers. It is lean, mean, and dead-on-target. Recommended for fans of WWII movies in the extreme “Inglorious” tradition, Burial opens tomorrow (9/2) in New York, at the IFC Center.