Watching documentary footage of the devastation of World War II is something can be hard to stomach. Such widespread chaos, destruction and faceless death can be really damaging to someone’s psyche. At some point when I watch a documentary showing me massive war destruction, I disassociate. It makes the process of watching horrible acts more bearable. On some level I know that this stuff actually happened in real life, but I am actively telling my brain that this footage is faked or dramatized. It’s also easy to do this when you don’t know any of the people pictured in the footage. To see the skeleton like creatures walking out of the concentration camps is easier to forget about when you don’t think that these people had lives, family and interests just like I do. But this is not a good thing for my brain to do. If I know that I am doing it to myself, how many other thousands of people are doing the same things? If we don’t learn from our past then we are bound to repeat it. (I still think that the Vietnam War has some striking similarities to the war we are currently fighting in Afghanistan. Clearly we did not learn our lesson about that one.) Overlord takes me to task for this unconscious/conscious coping mechanism by taking archival footage shot on the battlefields of France and Germany during World War II and humanizes one of the countless men who are nothing but cannon fodder.
This film is almost like a lyrical poem to the unknown soldier. The filmmaker takes a man and sets him in a position as a typical British solider storming the shores of Normandy. Tens of thousands of men lost their lives on both sides just in this battle alone. He was just one of the many. We see him go through basic training, make friends, fall in love ever so briefly, and generally talk about how terrible this war is. War is on everybody’s minds. They can’t stop wondering whether they are going to die, whether their friends are going to die or even what they are truly fighting for. His journey that leads to D-Day and inevitable is intercut, magnificently, with reporting footage. This footage not only shows the way these men whiled away the hours, the training they went through and the rough climates they were forced to go through, but it also showed the devastation they wrought through orders. At one point the filmmaker shows us an aerial view of buildings that had been shelled. Rows upon rows of torn apart and scarred buildings pass through the screen and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people died simply because they lived in the right neighborhood at the wrong time. I don’t know whether this is France, Germany or Britain, but I know I don’t care. War doesn’t just involve the willing, but also the non-willing and the incoherent.
We get to know this solider and we feel for him as he is sitting in that large boat being rushed to his fate. Before he boards the ship, he writes to his parents one last time saying that it is unlikely that he will make it back alive. To have that sort of premonition must have been devastating for him. And although he seems to have accepted it enough to have written to his parents about it, it doesn’t stop him from looking deathly sacred on the boat. He dissociates, much like I do when faced with an intense situation. He dreams about that girl he met, about her breasts and about how she might be waiting for him after the war. But he can’t shake that image of him falling dead out of his mind. In the most iconic image of the film (if you have ever looked at artwork of this film, you would have seen it), the filmmaker films the solider’s eye close up and projects the image of him falling over dead onto it. It is a beautifully stylistic choice.
He was able to take archival footage, the story of a young British solider and create something of supreme beauty out of it. This is why Overlord is a film worth watching.