Anchored in a screenplay by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith, Julius Avery’s second feature film is a visceral fusion of war and horror genres, focusing upon a collection of American soldiers who are dropped behind German lines to take down a communications tower. Once they do so, the American forces behind them will supposedly be able to storm in, destroy the German military camp around the tower, and help put an end to World War II. Upon landing, however, Private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo), Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) and paratrooper Tibbet (John Magaro) quickly discover that there is more than mere warfare taking place in this particular German camp. Aligning themselves with Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a local French woman, against Captain Wafner (Pilou Asbaek), a sadistic Nazi soldier, the Americans find themselves in the midst of a macabre medical experimentation centre designed to produce Aryan super-soldiers to help prodice the “thousand year Reich.”
From the opening scenes, which plunge the audience straight into the action, it feels as if Avery is trying to craft a war film that is as intense as a war game – an ambition that eventually necessitates leaving the realism of war behind altogether, and taking the film in the direction of supernatural horror. Suffused with the notional, abstracted space of most war games, and paced to a stealth-combat syntax that favours long POV shots, Avery presents his lead actors as avatars as much as characters, taking us through a series of discrete zones that play like different levels of a game, each of which presents progressively difficult challenges and obstacles. At no point do any of the characters put down their weapons for any length of time, meaning that they are always immersed in the tactility and materiality of the world around them. Largely reactive, but reactive in the most sensitive way, these figures all seem to be perpetually experiencing the world through the tactile mediation of a console, and seem designed to make the viewer feel the same way, allowing us to experience their reactions as viscerally and directly as if through a console of our own.
More than anything else, however, it is the dim palette of Avery that feels most indebted to gaming. From Bioshock to Black Ops, these murky textures are typically used to sever the game from the specific conflict it is supposedly dramatizing, and then from history itself, thereby constructing an alternative history out of the apparent facticity of the world the gamer is inhabiting. In Overlord, this alternative history involves a much more systematic and advanced form of medical experimentation than anything recorded at Holocaust camps, and yet one of the strange results of this historical augmentation is that it actually makes the film feel closer in spirit to an older war film than any depiction of WWII released in the last decade. In part, that’s because Avery’s depiction of Nazism – discussed in a moment – restores the moral certainty that is so often lacking from recent war films. But it’s also because Overlord reinstates Nazism as an object of speculation, and a horizon of uncertainty, taking the viewer back to a time in history when the thresholds of the Third Reich were so new that virtually anything might have been imagined to be taking place inside Hitler’s fortress. In that sense, Overlord often reminded me of films made about WWII during WWII, and especially of Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm, the first American film to directly address Nazism, which situates itself at the same imaginative threshold that Avery aims to evoke here, albeit not in such a visceral, violent or relentlessly blood manner.
The heightened intensity of Overlord is partly a matter of relaxed censorship standards, but it also comes from a different kind of urgency – the urgent need to rediscover Nazism again in the present. With the main arc of WWII relegated to the remote distance, Avery’s film is effectively a sustained encounter with Nazism, setting itself against both the rote use of Nazis for placeholders for evil in American cinema, but also against the Nazi chic of the alt right. In fact, Overlord tacitly suggests that the Nazi chic of the the alt right could never have occurred if Nazis hadn’t been so thoroughly exhausted and sanitized in American cinema, turning instead to the three vocabularies of gaming, supernaturalism and body horror to reinvest Nazism with the terror that it deserves. Drawing on Holocaust imagery at its most gruesome and tasteless, the spectacle of gore, torture and medical experimentation is therefore essential to Avery’s vision of “the thousand year Reich,’ which suggests that the ultimate goal of Nazism, both past and present, isn’t merely racial domination, but bodily augmentation – the construction of a new super-Aryan body capable of inflicting torture upon whoever it encounters. As Captain Wafner puts it, after being injected with the latest batch of a potent super-Aryan serum, “I am a god…Germany will have an invincible army.”
In the process, Overlord manages to tap into the visceral intensity of white supremacist rallies in the modern world. Time and again, photographs of these rallies capture a certain kind of pose – straining, veins bulging, eyes almost popping out of heads – as if the participants are trying to envisage a new body for themselves, or augment the power of their whiteness in its hold over the bodies around them. In Overlord, Avery presents that body as the final spectacle of horror, while mediating our perception of it through a black protagonist – quite a pointed choice for a WWII drama – to suggest that everyone is black, or should align themselves with blackness, when it comes to countering Nazism and neo-Nazism. More immediately, Overlord suggests that Nazis in the contemporary world should be dealt with just like Nazis in the 1940s – physically, militaristically, with extreme prejudice and caution – as Avery both dissociates Nazism from WWII, and reinvests Nazism with visceral evil, in the same gesture. The final twist of the film, is that Overlord eventually returns to realism, and to the official historical record, in the final scenes, as the Nazi laboratory is destroyed under a mound of rubble, and Private Boyce, Corporal Ford and paratrooper Tibbet decide that it’s best to keep the secret of the super-Aryan to themselves, since the serum could be just as dangerous if placed in the hands of Americans.
This is, however, precisely what Overlord suggests has occurred in the present, as Avery leaves the viewer with a kind of thought-experiment. Imagine if the Nazis had developed a super-Aryan during WWII, but the technology had been lost in the conflict. Now image how that technology would look in the present day, and the uses to which it would be placed by American neo-Nazi movements. It’s a chilling prospect, and yet the one real shortfall toOverlord is that the ending is just a little too jaunty, and just a little too cursory, to really suggest this continuity. It’s at this moment, in the final scene of the film, that the original (or reputed) connection to the Cloverfield franchise would have worked perfectly, since the fracturing of time across the Cloverfield films would have been a brilliant vehicle for the unexpected continuity suggested in these closing moments. Neverthelesss, even without the official endorsement of the franchise, this still feels like a Cloverfield moment in spirit, just as the ending doesn’t even detract all that much from one of the most original WWII films in some time, one that is true to both the films of the 1940s and to films of the future.