Nazi ghouls have figured in plenty of horror movies, whether preserved (1966’s “The Frozen Dead”), newly bioengineered (1978’s “The Boys from Brazil”) or zombiefied (too many to list). Edging close to that terrain, “Burial” revolves around a corpse — the corpse, as far as WWII’s end was concerned — that does not reanimate or otherwise come “back to life,” but poses a grave threat nonetheless.
Not-quite-horror despite its macabre theme and mood, this sophomore directorial feature for Ben Parker is a handsomely produced period thriller that delivers in terms of action and atmospherics, even if his somewhat convoluted story doesn’t maximally pay off. IFC Midnight is releasing the Estonia-shot U.K. production to limited U.S. theaters and on-demand platforms Sept. 2.
A framing device set in 1991 London has elderly Anna (Harriet Walter, in a role first given to Diana Rigg before her 2020 death) disturbed one night by an intruder. No helpless spinster, she soon has the skinhead-looking young perp (David Alexander) cuffed to her radiator. He’s somehow discovered she used to be Brana, a Soviet intelligence officer and translator, and says, “I know what you found in Berlin.” But he doesn’t know, really, and it is worth her while to inform this neo-Nazi goon of the myth-dissolving truth while he’s her captive audience.
Forty-six years earlier, as the Third Reich lay in ruins but peace had not yet been declared, Brana (now played by Charlotte Vega) was the lone female in a Red Army unit assigned to carry out a mission so secret even they don’t know its real purpose at first. The task is to hustle from the German capitol a casket-shaped trunk of unknown contents that must be buried every night and dug up each morning, a directive that strikes all as pretty strange.
Nonetheless, things go well enough until they’re ambushed just past the Polish border. Unwisely camping nearby to bury their own fresh dead, they are soon set upon by more assailants — not just the Nazi loyalists known as “Werwolves” who remain active in such outlying areas, but also locals who’ve learned to distrust Russian soldiers as much as German ones.
When she realizes just what cargo they’re transporting, Brana — a Jew already aware of the Holocaust’s horrors — doubles down on completing their mission, lest Hitler’s death be denied and his fanatical cause endure in the future. Among her allies are subordinates Tor (Barry Ward) and Iossif (Bill Milner), plus Lukasz (Tom Felton), a German-ethnic Pole who’s been burned by both sides. But even as actual Nazis give hot pursuit, her biggest problem in many respects is Capt. Ilyasov (Dan Skinner), a noxious bully not averse to enjoying “the spoils of war” (like rape), or to betraying his own comrades when convenient.
Lent a sometime fantastical edge by the Werwolves’ hairy camouflage and the deployment of some hallucination-inducing mushroom smoke, “Burial” makes the most of its largely outdoor locations. The nocturnal forest has considerable menace in esteemed Estonian DP Rein Kotov’s (of Oscar-nominated “Tangerines”) widescreen compositions, while production designer Jaagup Roomet ensures the few dank interiors offer scant comfort. Things proceed at a brisk but not rushed pace, punctuated by frequent bursts of credible violence.
The performers are strong, even if the dominance of distinct, diverse British accents tends to further muddy a large character roll call in which it’s often difficult to keep the similar-looking male figures straight, as well as which side they’re on. Nor does the overall concept have quite the punch it ought to. While Parker treats matters with an effective seriousness, the material never transcends action genre fodder, despite its offbeat hook. The political relevance to today’s fascist movements and historical denialism is welcome, yet the point of securing Hitler’s remains grows confused. A related tag scene works in the moment as an ironical surprise — only to turn ludicrous the second you think about it afterward.
Despite those flaws, “Burial” nonetheless works as a muscular thriller and well-crafted historical fiction. It is definitely a step up from Parker’s prior “The Chamber” (2016), which was also about a secret military mission, but did not rise above the grating tedium of having four characters yell at each other while trapped in a mini-submarine. Small wonder this more expansive enterprise sticks to open-air terra firma.