What if Hitler’s body hadn’t been cremated in Berlin by the SS? That alt-history teaser is the starting point for Ben Parker’s action thriller, which posits a tug of war over the corpse between a Soviet unit escorting it back to Stalin and pro-Nazi partisans hellbent on recovering it. Taking place in the Polish forests in the dying days of the second world war, Burial has an ambitious scope and a rueful sense of war’s barrenness – so it’s a shame it can’t unwrap its formaldehyde-steeped central conceit into something dramatically satisfying.
Brana (Charlotte Vega) is a young intelligence officer tasked with escorting the decomposing Führer back to Moscow, but morale is flagging among her soldiers as they travel through dense woodland stalked by “werewolf” resistance fighters. Army officer Vadim (Dan Renton Skinner), intent on undermining her authority, just wants to slope off and ravage the local womenfolk. But Nazi officer Wölfram (Kristjan Üksküla) is closing in, so she has to lean on the dependable Tor (Barry Ward) and friendly local guerrilla Lukasz (Harry Potter’s Tom Felton) to see the mission out.
Amid the trees, though, the film loses sight of the wood. There’s cursory talk of Stalin wanting to display his rival dictator’s corpse to shatter his mystique, but it’s less clear what the prize means to the sprawling and scantily characterised cast of characters on hand. With these vaguely mapped motivations, Burial instead hinges almost completely on a handful of slackly shot, interchangeable firefights. Vega is sleek in motion amid the bullets, but feels vapid and underpowered as a supposedly hardened veteran. It’s also jarring to have everyone speak English throughout, even when the Russian and German soldiers are supposed to not understand each other.
Nevertheless, Burial is still atmospheric, with something thematically potent lurking in its sylvan half-light. One of the Russian soldiers talks about the Roman memento mori tradition, when civilians warned returning victors not to forget their mortality. The film’s frame story – focused on a neo-Nazi who breaks into the now-elderly Brana’s house – picks up this thread of whether those intoxicated by violence and power can, or should, survive beyond death. Parker clearly has ideas he’s aiming at, but lets his target slip in the fog of war.
• Burial is available on digital platforms on 26 September.