“The thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers.”
Cinematic retellings of World War II have reached a recent caliber with bilingual revenge in Inglourious Basterds, tank hellfire in Fury and the beach evacuations of Dunkirk. The opening of Overlord lulls the audience into a sense of expectation with the nervous banter of soldiers, trading jokes and insults as they huddle in their transports, only for the scene to explode into claustrophobic chaos.
The real sense of dread begins with the centering of Jovan Adepo as the film’s lead, crawling out of the mud and ashes of the explosive opening. The isolation surrounding Private Boyce (Adepo) as he stumbles in the dark, flinching at every sound as he tries to load his dripping gun, helps establish Overlord as a horror movie even before the Nazi experiments. The forest looms oppressively over our hero creeping through the underbrush, light from the burning wreckage illuminating the silhouettes of less successful fellow paratroopers hanging limply from the trees in a stark and haunting image. This bleak approach to what seems at first a fairly formulaic dam-busters plot — locating the radio tower in a Nazi-occupied French village and disabling it before D-Day — begins to set up Overlord far beyond original expectations. Whether a b-movie with a better budget, or a grindhouse movie for 2018, it’s one of the few mainstream American war movies to feature a lead of color, and outside the context of color-restricted units like the Tuskegee Airmen or the 442nd Infantry Regiment. American soldiers of color fought throughout World War II, despite being the target of racist laws and treatment at home. Watching Boyce sweat through the adrenaline-building open of the rocky transport ride (where his seatmate and Jewish fellow soldier says, on being captured behind enemy line, “You know what they’ll do to a soldier called Rosenfield?”) or duck artillery fire as he searches for any surviving comrades might serve to remind viewers that minority-member soldiers were often regarded by command as disposable, and suffered disproportionate numbers of fatalities and casualties during the war.
It could have been easy for Overlord to drown such nuances of World War II in buckets of blood and gore (and there is plenty of that as well), but it folds them into the plot almost seamlessly. In a single scene, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), the French villager allowing them to hide in her house, goes from the cliché of providing softness in these hard circumstances and tenderly nursing Boyce’s wounds, to being undressed by a Nazi captain whose smile and mild manners barely mask his menace. Her entire encounter with Cpt. Wafner (the film’s main antagonist, played by Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbaek) is agonizingly and stomach-churningly paced; Chloe’s humiliation and the indignation of the watching American soldiers in the attic hinting to the tangled sexual politics of wartime occupation, in which women were forcibly coerced into sexual relationships with Nazis and shunned for it by their communities afterwards. Overlord’s strengths are in the subtleties of circumventing certain clichés, while leaning in to the shlocky premise of a war movie with evil scientists and the undead.
Smarter than it has any right to be, it avoids the massacres and mass grave imagery used in recent release Operation Finale to reaffirm just how awful the Nazis were, to make it clear early on that the movie is solely concerned with the experience of a small group of American soldiers who can barely tolerate each other, sharing less of a Band of Brothers bond than sticking together by the circumstances of being survivors with few options. “Three months ago I was cutting grass in my front yard…then the mailman shows up with a letter from the army. Now I’m here,” Boyce tells Chloe as they look out over the barbed wire and rubble of the village, remarking on the strangeness of their meeting in this time and place, even before the strangeness of talking disembodied heads and flesh sacs full of immortality goo are introduced.
This is not to say all, or even most, of the film’s 110 minute runtime should be spent considering its sociocultural references or historical accuracy; there’s also the gunfights, tunnel chase sequences and a pretty satisfying meeting between one character, a motorcycle and some duct tape. Filling out the rest of the team are wise-cracking, baseball hating sniper Tibett (John Magaro) and hapless photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker). Cpl. Ford (played by Kurt Russell’s son and inheritor of grizzled machismo, Wyatt Russell) is the leader, a war-hardened, mysterious munitions expert balancing Boyce’s terror and empathy, keeping both the plot and unit’s radio tower mission on track, but maybe representing the unit’s strongest moral center after all. As if the countdown to D-Day wasn’t high stakes enough, the execution of the against-the-odds mission also raises a grunt soldier’s take on technology designed by elite higher ups, looking for the edge in an arms race that prioritizes military strategy and technological prowess over human lives. The ethics of using science from the Nazi-regime scientists has always been controversial, with most early operational data on hypothermia originating from immersion experiments at Dachau concentration camp, and the US government “Operation Paperclip” actively recruiting Nazi scientists for military research programs. “Maybe there’s just things neither side should have,” one of our unlikely heroes grits through bloody teeth.
If a group of paratroopers taking on experimental Nazi super-soldiers behind enemy lines doesn’t sound like a good time, then viewers will already know if this movie is for them. There are many other WWII movies that treat the material with sensitivity and a dedication to realism, but against the odds, Overlord brings a fresh take on both war and the undead. Most surprisingly for a modern grindhouse horror, it has a brain, heart and guts (plenty of them, often splattered on the walls). The subject matter will have already given some prospective watchers a bad taste in their mouth, and critics have accused Overlord of trivializing the atrocities of the Holocaust and WWII by dressing war crimes up with a lab coat and spooky castle-lab dungeon. But in a time when neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville and Chemnitz with fiery torches and salutes are no longer seen as universally shocking, maybe we need supernatural contortions to remind us of the Reich’s real monstrousness.