There’s a great movie—or at least the idea for one—buried somewhere in Burial, but the finished product is just OK. British writer-director Ben Parker returns with the follow-up to his underwhelming debut, The Chamber (2016), and he’s nothing if not ambitious, spinning a very different top-secret recovery mission.
It’s 1991. The U.S.S.R. is no more. A neo-Nazi breaks into the home of Anna (Harriet Walter), an older woman who seems more than ready for his arrival. She tasers, drugs, and handcuffs him. When he awakens, he announces that he knows who she is and demands to hear the truth about events that occurred decades earlier. Anna stops ringing the police and obliges the young man’s request.
Cut to 1945. WWII is over except for the official surrender. Hitler killed himself in his bunker. His decaying body sits in a trunk/coffin, and a group of Russian soldiers embarks on a dangerous, clandestine, and potentially history-altering mission to transport the body to Moscow, where the world can see that he is truly dead. However, German partisans/Nazi sympathizers, referred to here as Wehrwolves, attempt to intervene with this mission, hoping either to bury the Fuhrer (and the truth) from everyone forever, or claim that the body is a fake, preserving the lie that Hitler lives.
It’s here that we meet Brana (Charlotte Vega), or Anna in her youth. She’s a Russian intelligence officer and translator taking charge of the effort to get Hitler’s corpse to Stalin. She initially doesn’t realize what’s in the trunk, which per orders from above must be buried every night. She additionally contends with locals who make no distinction between Germans and Russians, comrades with little patience for orders from a woman (an intriguing idea Parker barely explores), and Wehrwolves repeatedly attacking her troops. One of her own, Captain Ilyasov (Dan Skinner), is particularly loathsome, while a local, Lucasz (Tom Felton), proves to be a worthy friend and ally.
Parker gets a lot right, drawing out this story across 93 minutes and making the most of atmospheric, Estonian forest settings. Period costumes, vehicles, and weapons look convincing. And major kudos to him for skipping zombies (a la Dead Snow), Tarantino-style revisionism (a la Inglourious Basterds), Grand Guignol violence (a la Al Pacino’s bloody television series Hunters or The Boys from Brazil), or fantastical humor (a la Jo Jo Rabbit). He crafts a mostly straightforward action-thriller, steeped in intriguing but little-known historical events—enough so to create this premise from whole cloth.
But without a deeper or more inventive twist, we’ve seen this type of story a million times before. It’s competently rendered, but nothing groundbreaking. And while some of the emotional drama hits home, the thriller elements rarely thrill. Vega and Felton, the beneficiaries of screen time that lets their characters grow, deliver strong performances, but the other actors seem called upon to wear either white or black hats—and nothing more. Even Walter, who replaced Dame Diana Rigg as “1991 Anna,” only modestly registers. Accents are all over the map.
Meanwhile, hallucinogens become a plot point for no particular reason, and with negligible results; the wonky visuals are cool, but they’re more distracting than anything else. Most problematic, however, is the film’s pacing. After the promising opening sequence, virtually nothing happens for another half-hour. After lots of inconsequential talking that should have been streamlined, the payoff—various shootouts and chases and showdowns—never fully redeems the film from its meandering build-up. You’d think that the story of what happened, or could, to Adolf Hitler’s corpse would be automatically pretty interesting. Sadly, Burial never manages to uncover a version that is.