Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Soldiers of the Damned

Director: Mark Nuttall
Writer: Nigel Horne
Producers: Stephen Rigg, Nigel Horne
Cast: Gil Darnell, Miriam Cooke, Lucas Hansen
Country: UK
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener
Website: www.soldiersofthedamned.com

Any British movie where the majority of characters are not English-speakers faces a three-way choice. Do you do the whole thing in the characters’ real language(s), subtitled? Do you have the actors speak English with the appropriate accent? Or do you just have the actors use their regular accents? Obviously the first option is artistically preferable, but it requires actors fluent in that language and it can be a tricky sell to both distributors and audiences. So we’re left with two alternatives. Every character in this film is German (except for a small number of Russian soldiers): should they use German accents or not?

As a film-maker, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m firmly in the pro-accents camp. I can believe that they’re German better if they at least sound German and not like they’re from Hampstead or Barnsley. But I know there are other people who hold the opposite view: that if the words aren’t German it’s ridiculous to use a German accent. I think it perhaps boils down to the quality of the actor. It takes skill to provide enough of an accent that we believe the character’s nationality without sounding like a comedy routine.

Bizarrely, one of the actors in Soldiers of the Damned does use a German accent (he’s not actually German – I checked). Also odd is that the actors playing Russian soldiers do use Russian accents when speaking English (which is presumably supposed to be German), while their Russian dialogue is actually in Russian but subtitled. Which I suppose does at least let us know when they’re speaking which language. But still consistent use of accents would have benefitted this movie.

But that’s not the film’s big problem.

Historical accuracy is hard, and gets harder the smaller your budget. I’m not a military history nerd and I can’t tell you whether the uniforms and weapons in this film are accurate for a group of German soldiers in Romania in 1944. I did spot one thing. An SS Officer who has an almost obsessive pride in the importance of the SS uniform wears his hat wrong. He wears his dress cap jauntily on the back of his head. The whole point of the low peak on a hat like that is that it comes down in front of your eyes and forces you to hold your head stiffly upright if you want to see anything. It was an idea developed by the Germans in the 1930s and, like so many sartorial/practical aspects of Nazi military uniform, is widely copied today around the world. Any SS soldier wearing his hat like this guy would have been given a serious dressing down, no matter his seniority.

There are some other oddities that I noticed. At one point a character writes a message on his forearm. But… how? You can’t write on your skin with a pencil or a fountain pen. The ball-point pen was only invented in 1938 and was an expensive, specialised piece of equipment. RAF bomber crews carried them because the ink wouldn’t freeze at high altitude, but an ordinary German soldier wouldn’t have anything like that.

The film begins with an entirely unnecessary – and frankly inane – narration over a map of Europe: "World War II was in its fifth vicious year of conflict. The German war machine, controlled by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, had a stranglehold over much of Europe, from the Atlantic coast of France to the Russian Urals. Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler was head of an armed Division called the Waffen SS.”

Leaving aside the fact that the SS was actually a wing of the army consisting of 38 Divisions, do we really need to be told that Adolf Hitler was in charge of Germany? While we hear this, a blood red stain spreads from Germany across Europe, including neutral countries like Spain and Switzerland. Although I only noticed that inaccuracy second time around as I was initially distracted by the presence on this map of countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic which didn’t exist until the 1990s. Talk about spoiling the ship for a hap’orth of tar. How difficult could it be to get a public domain 1940s map of Europe? Wikipedia’s crawling with ‘em!

The main purpose of the narration is to (a) imply that regular German soldiers weren’t Nazis and hated the SS, which is a gross over-simplification, and (b) explain that Himmler oversaw an organisation called the Ahnenerbe which investigated occult ideas. But the plot of this film is a squad being sent on a mysterious mission without explanation, so that could have waited until much later in the film when one character tells another what the Ahnenerbe is.

What might have been worth narration is a description of the situation in Romania in early 1944 which certainly wasn’t as simple as the Russians advancing and the Germans retreating. Romania was a Nazi ally whose troops had been instrumental in the invasion of the Soviet Union. By 1944, with the RAF bombing their previously untouched cities and the Red Army advancing across the countryside, the Romanian population were turning against their Fascist leader Antonescu and were ready to switch sides, which they did in August 1944 after King Michael staged a royalist coup.

So in the spring of that year, there was little enthusiasm for fighting from the Romanian troops but the Germans were using every power and threat they had to keep the Romanians fighting. Because Germany desperately needed the Romanian oil fields; as soon as they were lost, the war was effectively over because there would be no fuel for tanks and planes. However, in spring 1944, with the Atlantic wall unbreached and the Allied forces in Italy bogged down at Monte Casino, there was still every expectation of German victory. The weary desire among German troops that the war would just be over soon, espoused by one of the characters in this film, was still some months off.

Okay, so maybe I am a bit of a military history nerd.

Fascinating as the situation in Romania in spring 1944 was, it’s not actually germane to this story. We neither see nor hear mention of any Romanian troops and there’s nothing about the oil fields or anything like that. So, to be honest, the film could have skipped its anachronistic map and patronising narration and just started with a caption reading ‘Romania, 1944’.

But that’s not the film’s big problem either.

There are in fact three quite big problems with this film, and one really big problem. But first, let me tell you what it’s about.

A small squad of German soldiers, accompanied by two SS Officers, are charged with escorting a female academic into a forest, some 20 miles or so behind enemy lines. They are told only that they have to get her to a certain place, then get her out of there. These orders come direct from Himmler.

A common problem with films about soldiers is distinguishing between the characters, and it was quite some time before enough of the squad had been killed that I could actually identify all the remaining individuals. The CO is Major Kurt Fleischer (Gil Darnell: Blood Moon) who (in)conveniently is a former lover of their charge, Professor Anna Kappel (model turned archaeologist turned TV presenter turned actress Miriam Cooke). With Fleischer are Lieutenant Eric Fuchs (Tom Sawyer: FestEvil, Little Deaths) who carries a Native American throwing axe around with him for reasons that are explained towards the end, and Private Dieter Baum (Jason Kennedy, who was in a Morrison’s ad), who is initially presented as a bit mentally challenged although that is fairly swiftly forgotten.

Lucas Hansen (Bloodlust, Psoro, The Human Centipede II) is Major Heinrich Metzger, the SS Officer assigned to accompany them, along with another SS soldier, Lieutenant Sven Jung (Nicholas Keith, who was in a couple of episodes of the 2013 Dracula TV series). Metzger (the one who wears his hat wrong) is like a slightly less camp Herr Flick while Jung is a psycho. There are some other soldiers but they made even less impression on me than the main players. Mark Fountain, Matthew John Morley (Victor Frankenstein) and Nicky Bell (When the Lights Went Out) round out the squad. The cast also includes Alan French (Before Dawn), Andrea Zayats (Frankenstein’s Army), Stuart Adams (Hobgoblyn, Zombie Women of Satan 2), Sam Hampson (Dense Fear Bloodline) and onetime X-Factor contestant Craig Davies.

After sneaking past literally the Red Army’s worst sentry ever (he stands with his back to the view and can’t hear a dozen people passing about five feet away from him), the Krauts spend the rest of the film walking through deciduous woodland. But there’s no sense of a journey. There are no landmarks in this forest and no-one ever consults a map or a compass.

Considering that they are well behind enemy lines and there are Russian patrols in the forest (which they occasionally encounter) the Germans seem surprisingly unbothered about caution: letting off guns, shouting to each other, at one point being surprised by a lone loony who attacks them. Sometimes they walk as a group, at other times two of them are alone. Which serves a narrative purpose, because the script wants to include a duologue, but leaves the question of why the group has split up and how they could possibly find each other again. No thought has been given to the practicalities of a long-range mission in enemy-occupied territory; it’s just a set-up for the plot.

The plot, such as it is, is that this forest is haunted or ‘possessed’ in some way. Well, in several ways actually. Like so many horror scriptwriters before him, Nigel Horne has simple included a range of ‘spooky and creepy things’ without any overarching structure or coherent rationale. Sometimes people glimpse glowing faerie-folk running among the trees. Sometimes characters encounter white-faced, black-eyed children who may possibly be the ghosts of Jewish victims of SS atrocities. Or possibly not. There are various instances of, or references to, people being many years older than they could possibly be, and also people and things falling from an improbably great height. Some people hear voices, others don’t. None of this fits together in any satisfying way.

Also people burn up in seconds, leaving small piles of white ash. Eventually we discover that when this happens the person who has burned up finds himself in another part of the wood (or possibly the same part at a different time – there are all sorts of random time-loop ideas thrown into the mix too). Now alone, the person then meets a nasty end; an idea not dissimilar to what happens in KillerKiller (and also reminiscent of The Devil’s Chair). The problem is: we don’t really care about any of this. We don’t care when the person burns up, once we realise they’ll still be alive somewhere else – and we don’t care when they finally meet their end because they are effectively already dead.

Underlying all this random spookiness is the idea that these woods are inhabited by some sort of mythical ‘godmen’ who are the ancestors of the Aryan race (or something). The McGuffin for which Professor Kappel is searching is a device that will allow contact with these godmen, represented by an unseen glowing item in a rucksack, unavoidably reminiscent of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the car boot in Repo Man. Eventually the remains of the expedition reach some sort of ancient stone temple where matters resolve themselves to some extent.

I would be lying if I said that Soldiers of the Damned kept my attention. I frequently paused the screener to make a cup of tea, or go to the loo, or check the weather on the BBC website, or a number of other reasons. At no point was I engrossed in the film. And this – yes, this – is the film’s big problem. Its really big problem (I’ll come to the three other less big problems in a moment). I never at any time felt involved. I really didn’t care about any of the characters. Horne’s script tries to give them personalities but there’s no real depth to any of them. They’re on a mission that most of them don’t know any details of, in a featureless woodland, occasionally jumping backwards and forwards in time, or something, while a mixed buffet of weirdness happens to them, around them, or in anecdotes which they tell each other.

Yes, there’s antipathy between the SS and the regulars. Yes there’s a romantic history between Fleischer and Kappel. So what? I never cared what happened to anyone. I wasn’t worried about what might happen; I didn’t feel any emotion once we found out what had happened; and often it was entirely unclear what was actually happening – while it was actually happening. Mark Nuttall’s direction is competent, but there’s nothing to work with here.

Possibly the root problem is that there simply isn’t a clear antagonist. Except for a few brief occasions, our protagonists are not actually being shot at by Russians. They are in denial of the spookiness they encounter until very near the end of the film. The tensions within the group are never explored in any depth. What exactly are they meant to be up against? Who or what are they trying to overcome?

The acting is distinctly variable. Although, to be fair to the cast, most of whom do seem to be very good actors at some point or other in the film, I think this is a problem with the script, not the performances. You could cast this film entirely with players from the RSC and parts of it would still sound wooden. You can write this stuff, George, but you sure can’t say it. Ironically, I think this is a problem which could have been alleviated by the use of German accents. With an accent, the mannered, almost leaden dialogue would seem less stilted and artificial.

The script is one of the three not quite so big problems. The others are the photography and the production design.

My beef with the photography is this. Despite all the talk of the forest being a creepy, spooky, ‘possessed’ place, it never seems even slightly unnerving – because almost the entire movie is shot in bright daylight. In purely practical terms, if the squad was behind enemy lines wouldn’t they move mostly at night? I bloody would! At one point we have the always cheesy line: “It will be dark in a couple of hours.” No it won’t! We can see the sun beating down almost vertically on you from a cloudless sky! Jeez, if you must have a line that clich├ęd, at least wait until the end of the day to get that shot.

There is one day-for-night scene of the squad bedding down which is as unrealistic and unbelievable as every single other day-for-night scene ever shot in the entire history of motion pictures. I think this may have been the same scene where, alarmed by spooky voices, the squad run away a short distance and then, collecting themselves, set off into the forest again – without bothering to return for their blankets (which there is no sign of them carrying in other scenes anyway). James Martin is clearly a competent cinematographer and has photographed a lot of short films over the past few years, but he completely fails to instil any atmosphere or invoke any sense of dread, fear or even apprehension. The soldiers look like they’re going on a nature hike.

And then there’s the production design. Seriously, I’m not enough of a military history nerd to spot the wrong mark of machine gun or say, “That type of tank wasn’t deployed in Romania.” Maps and pens aside, there’s nothing obviously anachronistic or wrong here, and I’ll leave it to the real nerds to point out any pedantic mistakes. The film has as its ‘military advisor’ a gentleman named Ronnie Papaleo who has been involved in lots of big budget war productions, mostly credited as vehicles co-ordinator or similar. To judge from the site for his own in-development feature The Ice Cream Man, he actually is a serious military history nerd himself. Good for him.

Papaleo evidently has, or at least has access to, large amounts of original or authentically recreated materiel: uniforms, helmets, weapons, vehicles etc. Nowadays, a combination of re-enactment groups and CGI make it eminently possible to create a very believable wartime setting for a film, even on a low budget (as was recently proven by Allies). But here’s the problem. Everything is simply too clean. Re-enactors, collectors and costumiers like to keep their uniforms in good condition, but in the real world, in wartime, soldiers wear the same clothes for weeks at a time without ever washing them. Clothes and other personal items get covered in mud and blood, get ripped and patched. Fleischer and his men look like they’ve just stepped off the parade ground, even after spending several days and nights in the forest. I could maybe accept the SS duo starting off smart and clean, but even they are sleeping rough.

What gore effects exist in Soldiers of the Damned are largely kept away from clothes, while bullet hits and knives send cascades of CGI blood spurting into the digital realm. But throughout, the uniforms remain clean and neat. (Rebecca Hall is credited with the SFX make-up. Her other BHR gigs include The Eschatrilogy, Devil Makes Work, The Sleeping Room, The Vicious Dead, Ibiza Undead and Dark Signal. Shrewd Ape was the VFX company.) Also, despite walking for several days, all the men remain completely clean-shaven. Which to my mind is even spookier than black-eyed ghost children.

Thus we find that, despite the undoubted sincerity and hard work of the cast and crew, a perfect storm of problems – some of them, frankly, avoidable – combine to make Soldiers of the Damned a joyless, dull, poorly executed picture. It’s precisely because the film is dull – characters we don’t care about on a mission they don’t know about with no clearly defined antagonist to defeat – that the other problems are so noticeable. A killer script and taut direction might have distracted from pristine uniforms, clean-shaven chins, sunny forest days, and maps that are out by half a century. In fact pretty much the only time I enjoyed the film was when I shouldn’t have, in that a few scenes are so bad they’re actually funny. If you don’t laugh out loud when the tank appears, you’re made of stronger stuff than me (they show it twice, and it’s even funnier when you know what’s coming!). But I don’t think any part of this film is intended as comedy.

What a shame. Soldiers of the Damned had a lot of potential and I was really looking forward to it. But ultimately it joins the ranks of unsuccessful British war-horror crossovers, alongside Deathwatch, The Lost and Nazi Zombie Death Tales. Only The Bunker came anywhere close to succeeding in this subgenre. Basically, these sort of films would all like to be The Keep (Soldiers… even casts one of The Keep’s actors, Renny Krupinski, as the Colonel who gives Fleischer his orders). But The Keep has already been made. Make something new.

And it’s not impossible to have weird things tormenting soldiers in a low budget horror movie. I was reminded of how effective Ivan Zuccon’s debut The Darkness Beyond is. Ivan managed it, but sadly Nutall and Horne don’t, despite undoubtedly valiant effort. Too many things don’t work. Yes, some of my comments are pedantic nitpicking. Really, does it matter how Major Metzger wears his hat? Of course not. But does it matter that the viewer feels no empathy for these characters? Does it matter that the supposedly spooky forest is devoid of atmosphere? Does it matter that characters who have been sleeping rough look like they just got dressed for parade? Does it matter that the dialogue is dull and lifeless? Yes. Yes it does matter, I’m afraid. That’s the essence of film-making. Sorry.

For the record, director Mark Nuttall is a former TV graphics guy who has directed music videos, documentaries, ads and episodes of The Chuckle Brothers. Writer-producer Nigel Horne made a comedy called The Wedding Tackle back in 2000 and is now Managing Director of Safecracker Pictures, who released Soldiers of the Damned on UK DVD in August 2015. Shot in the Lake District over five weeks in April/May 2013 (with a few pick-ups in September), the film was trade screened at the AFM in November 2014 and officially premiered at a one-off screening in Manchester a couple of weeks before the disc hit shelves.

MJS rating: C

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