“Remember the lessons of history. If you let this stuff go on, you will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes.”
World War II has long been a rich source of inspiration for genre cinema, but with Burial Ben Parker is breaking new ground. James Rodrigues sits down with the writer / director to discuss a story ripped from the history books, but which also has implications for today…
Where did the premise for Burial come from?
I’ve always been interested in military history. I seem to absorb these stories more than any other. All the men in my family were military. My grandfather was a military advisor on The Dirty Dozen, so the marriage of ‘stories about the war’ and film seemed destined for me.
Then when I was writing another script – a more straight biopic – I’d come across a footnote in a book called Against Stalin and Hitler about the fact that Russian intelligence had smuggled Hitler’s remains out of Berlin in the last days of the war. Also, in order to hide the remains, the Soviets would bury them in the ground. This notion fascinated me. There is so little written about the Soviet discovery of the body – because they kept it secret.
There’s a wonderful novella called The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. about Nazi hunters tracking down rumours of a surviving Hitler after the war. It’s great but I wanted to do a story where we start off with Hitler definitely dead, and then still tell this thrilling story of what happened to his remains. I really loved the idea of someone spitting on the corpse of Hitler. I mean, ultimately, I think that’s what brought me to sit down and write this.
An interesting element involves local people distrusting Russian soldiers, as past events cause them to worry that those who force out oppressors will take their place. What drew you to this idea?
Well, real history, I guess. And it’s still happening now!
I had this problem in writing the script in that I loved the central premise but in order to tell that story it had to revolve around Soviet soldiers moving through east Germany and Poland. And obviously, they were not particularly pleasant when they pushed through Poland to liberate Berlin, to say it mildly.
If you read Anthony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin the most conservative estimates put the sexual assaults on German women at over 100,000 in Berlin alone. They did turn the tide of the war. They did sacrifice millions to win the war. But they acted like monsters in doing it.
This motivated some of the dialogue in the film. It also motivated me to not show these soldiers as out-and-out heroes. The reason I wanted to have Polish characters in the film was to remind the audience that these were not good guys. And the fact that one of the people who verified Hitler’s remains in real life was a Jewish Soviet intelligence officer named Elena Rzhevskaya gave me inspiration for a character that may actually be a little more sympathetic.
I wanted to write a piece of entertainment but I also wanted to write something that spoke to the dangers of propaganda. In 2017, when I wrote the script, we were coming to terms with ‘alternate facts’, the appearance of disgusting men with tiki torches and the aftermath of a secret incursion ‘operation’ into Ukraine back in 2015. This motivated me to write the script the way it is: the themes of burying the truth, questions of what will happen if you conceal the truth and motivate someone with a myth or a lie. What happens when you motivate a nation with hatred? They hate. They act in violence and kill. This was the case in 1945, and it’s the case now. The is fact that Russian soldiers are STILL behaving in abhorrent ways in an unjust war. There’s still rape of innocent civilians going on and they’re STILL trying to mask the truth. This is why I wrote the characters this way. It’s why I had the element of ‘Memento Mori’ in there. Remember death. Remember the lessons of history. If you let this stuff go on, you will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
The performances of Charlotte Vega and Harriet Walter are wonderful., playing the same person at two different periods of her life. What was it like working with them both, and did you give them any particular direction?
Both Charlotte and Harriet are wonderful actors. They were very giving with their time and attention to what my intentions were for the characters, what I wanted to portray and they were both very empathetic in their performances. And I say characters because Anna and Brana are different in many ways.
We spoke about the story that happened between their two moments in the film – a lifetime changes a person. But there had to be crossover on their performance too, especially for Harriet. What was scripted informed a lot about Charlotte’s role — Brana was tough and unwavering, and then those characteristics filtered through to Harriet’s scripted moments. But in terms of tone or performance, Harriet and Charlotte met and I shared Charlotte’s dailies with Harriet so that she could absorb some of the notes that Charlotte was playing. For me, it was a masterclass. Both Charlotte and Harriet taught me so much about acting in a very short time.
Tom Felton brings a lot of audience expectations with him, particularly from his time in the Harry Potter films. Did you and he discuss this, and did you seek to play with these expectations in any way?
Tom was the first person attached to the film and he and I had many transatlantic conversations in pre-production about his character, as well as discussions on history and film — he is great to chat with.
His character Lukasz is quite mysterious. He seems like a good guy at first but then we’re not sure and others are saying he’s not to be trusted. Without giving away spoilers he has some twists and turns in his backstory. For this reason, I loved the idea that the audience might bring preconceptions about him being a ‘bad guy’. I was more than happy with that. But of course, in real life, Tom is a sweetheart. Whilst working with him I had a newfound appreciation of his acting and his performance in Harry Potter: Draco is snivelling and mean-spirited, but in reality Tom is such a lovely human being and so giving with his time.
The film examines how legacies can mythologise men, notably in how Tor’s (Barry Ward) violent history is seen by his fellow soldiers. Was this influenced by anything in the real world?
There are a lot of points in the story where we talk about the mythologizing of violence. The overall way in which we glorify the victors of war is there in the dialogue from Harriet in the beginning and with the soldiers later. The victors get to write history and maybe erase the details that aren’t so palatable — the violent acts, the wrong-doing. I also touched on this in the ‘memento mori’ speech. Roman soldiers returning from the war were welcomed home as heroes and ‘gods’. The warning is to ‘remember death’, that you are still mortal men and not gods, that you too shall die. And it’s Tor who says, after this war, no one will need a reminder of death (which, by the way, is a nod to one of my favourite films of all time, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp).
With Iosif (Bill Milner) I wanted this fresh-faced, innocence of a soldier not long there, despite the war being almost over. And with Tor I wanted to show the darker side. I wanted Tor to be completely broken by what he’d done and seen. To him, there are no victors in this war. When things have gotten so bloody, everyone is touched by it. And Tor was really twinned with the German character of Rothe (Hendrik Toompere Jr. Jr.) who is coping with the same things. They are two warriors that gave everything to the fight and don’t know how to exist in a world beyond it.
And of course, Tor’s name was inspired by an act of violence, a nickname his fellow soldiers gave him for killing Germans with a hammer. This was inspired by a few different things. I had written backstories for all the main characters of the film, for the actors and for me to keep track of who they were, and where they’d come from. Incidentally, there was a bit of dialogue in an earlier draft of the script where Brana and Tor discussed being Ukrainian Russians but we cut this to avoid even more confusion with various nationalities and accents. But Tor’s name is the Nordic pronunciation of THOR.
In hindsight it’s perhaps a bit too flippant. I think if Marvel pops into the audience’s head, it might throw you out of the story. But the name speaks to these notions of myths and gods, which we talk about later. Barry and I talked about the horror he would have seen in Stalingrad and the violent imagery this story about his name conjures up. It’s said as sort of a joke, which again speaks to the sanitising of violence. We spoke about something like Winding Refn’s Drive, where handsome Ryan Gosling kills a guy with a hammer and stomps on someone’s head and still manages to be the romantic hunk. And Tor seems sympathetic too.
This is the point: we take in these violent stories and later we need to be reminded of the horror of this. He’s not a hero or a god.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a few projects. Some are based on my own screenplays, some just as a director. I have a very interesting horror script with the producers of His House I hope to do soon, and a much bigger action thriller that will be fun. I probably can’t talk about any of them.
I remember screening my first film at Frightfest and I was so sure that Burial was imminent, that I told everyone about it. And then it took another five years to get made. But hopefully, I’ll be back speaking with you about my next project much sooner than that. I’ll call Nic Winding Refn now to pitch him that R-rated Thor script.
© James Rodrigues
Burial has its World Premiere at FrightFest 29th August. Available on digital 26th September from 101 Films.