The experience of watching Burial, a film that grounds itself in the history of the final days of World War II before going in its own direction, is one defined by competing narrative impulses. On the one hand, it ostensibly seems to be about the unlikely bond between the Russian intelligence officer Brana (Charlotte Vega) and local villager Gaunt (Tom Felton), who find themselves aligned in a mission of truth. On the other, it is a thriller that frequently flirts with becoming an out-and-out horror film only to never quite arrive there. The result is a middling work that is occasionally interesting, as we see how it attempts to strike a balance between these two distinct ideas. Regrettably, it ultimately can’t hold itself together when it counts.
Where it all begins is actually far removed from the main events in the film. Writer-director Ben Parker introduces us to Anna, played by an underutilized Harriet Walter, who we quickly discover is actually Brana, who is now living in London. Soon, a man sneaks into her home through an unlocked door. However, we see that this is by design, and she has been expecting him. Anna gets the drop on him and chains him up. The man is clearly a neo-Nazi and believes that she can give him information about something she found in Berlin during the war. She proceeds to hang up the phone she had been planning to use to call the police and decides to tell the intruder in her home what exactly happened those many decades ago. Thus, the entire story takes place in what is essentially a flashback to rival all flashbacks. It originally seems almost reminiscent of a film like 2011’s The Debt, except it soon becomes clear that the future is merely the entry point to the past and nothing more. This is unfortunate as the glimpses we get of where it all ends up are far more enthralling than the slapdash scenes that preceded it.
The mission at the core of the film is about escorting the boxed-up remains of Hitler out of Germany and into Russia. It is all about providing proof that one of history’s most prolific killers is now dead at his own hand. An opening conversation gives a dubious explanation about how the journey must be made on foot as opposed to plane to not draw attention to the operation. Brana and a group of unaware soldiers then hit the road, traveling out of the ruins of Berlin into the countryside. A radio broadcast provides a brief exposition that fighting is ongoing as surrender has not yet happened. As the group continues onward, Brana instructs the soldiers that they must bury the crate every night. It is presented with an ominous tone and her fellow travelers seem nervous about doing this ritual. When asked about this by a fellow soldier nicknamed Tor (Barry Ward), Brana simply says this is a precaution so that if they are killed the cargo will never be found. It instills everything with a proper sense of dread as the unsettling sounds of animals echo in the vast darkness that threatens to swallow them up.
As the grim procession continues onwards, they must deal with both dour weather and attacks by Wehrwolf fighters who are continuing to carry on despite the war being all but over. Over Brana’s objections, they decide to set up camp in the middle of this so that the more undisciplined amongst them can go to a nearby village to drink. This leads to more trouble and the most paper-thin characterization of the locals who fade into the background. It is this setting and the surrounding area where the remainder of the film will take place as attacks begin to escalate on the group. It is here where Brana meets Gaunt who, after an early confrontation, will try his best to help them by using his familiarity with the tactics of the attackers. This is where the film dips its toe into horror as nightmarish visions seem to emerge out of the darkness. All of this becomes nothing more than a misdirection that the film doesn’t get to sink its teeth into. Instead, the story drops these horror elements by the wayside as abruptly as it picked them up. This isn’t necessarily bad on its own, as plenty of films have successfully sprinkled in moments of genre flair while continuing on with their main narrative focus. What really dampens the whole affair is just how directionless and unfocused it all feels. As the characters run about the woods, the story gets hopelessly spun around as well.
This is something that takes place on both a technical as well as a narrative level. The action relies on haphazard and rapid-fire editing to make it seem like exciting things are happening. In actuality, these sequences are only occasionally engaging and mostly feel empty of any real tension. There are undoubtedly explosive moments that offer up some surprisingly nasty effects, yet they are too rare to leave much of an impact. A scene where the characters are pinned down inside a house and taking gunfire from all directions lacks weight when there is such sporadic staging. Some glass will shatter, and you’ll hear the occasional sound of passing bullets, yet where characters are in relationship to each other is anyone’s guess. There is even a baffling moment where a transition between two disconnected shots creates the artificial appearance of a quick whip pan. This clearly does not actually occur within the camera and is but one of many distracting moments in the scene where the film fails to find a focal point for the action. It then tries to overcompensate for this by having a character inexplicably repeat a key line about where he is going, so the story can somehow continue on.
At every turn, the cast really tries to give it their all. In particular, Vega is a convincing and compelling lead who does her best to carry the meandering story across the finish line. The scenes she shares with Felton seek to give their relationship depth, though they are far too rushed and fleeting. Still, no one is phoning it in and everyone commits. The difficulty becomes that all of them are left with only the flimsiest of motivation and a story to work with. A rousing speech that Vega gives near the end for them to undertake one final push to complete their mission sees her infusing it with all the gravitas she can. Unfortunately, it leads to yet another sequence of characters shooting and attacking each other that is as poorly constructed as the one before. There is one genuinely hilarious flipping over of a table that makes it seem like the finale might embrace the dark absurdity of what is happening, though this passes all too quickly to be of enough significance. The way it all connects back to where it began is not given enough time to breathe for even a moment, let alone in a manner that is well-developed. As it grinds to a halting conclusion, the disparate elements struggle to pull together and just end up laying bare the lacking moments that come to define the experience.