Criterion Review: Overlord


★★★★☆
There is a twin dualism at the heart of Stuart Cooper's Overlord that potentially explain why it has generally been overlooked since its release in 1975. First there is form: a combination of narrative drama and archival documentary footage. Then there's style: a blend of the distinguished nobility of Second World War-era productions, and the pervasive pessimism of the mid-seventies, juxtaposed against each other through a temporally shifting structure. In some ways they make Overlord seem as though it lacks the courage of convictions in what it wants to be, but in truth it is a film of transcendent cumulative power.

This is not a film that rams its message home at ever conceivable juncture, but builds progressively to its heartbreaking end-point, the eponymous operation that saw the successful invasion of Nazi-occupied France by the allies. The denouement seems set from the very opening shots: ominous music accompanies the shadow of an aircraft passing over devastated cityscapes; Adolf Hitler observes from a window; a figure runs slow-motion towards the screen, out of focus, before being gunned down. There are several scenes of this nature looming large on the horizon and playing heavily on the mind of the protagonist, Thomas Bedews (played with reservations and a wan smile by Brian Stirner). Overlord isn't explicitly about the horrors of war but the haunting reality of preparing for them. Even before he's departed home for basic training, Tom (or is that Tommy?) is having visions/dreams/flash-forwards to the fate that undoubtedly awaits him.

As Tom goes from green recruit to uneasy combatant Cooper builds a tremendous melancholy. There are humorous asides, particularly Tom's trip to the cinema to see the propaganda newsreel film Calling Germany which repurposed footage from Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will into a musical mockery set to The Lambeth Walk. In the sequence, Tom's is propositioned by a woman in the movie theatre but the comedy of the moment is tinged with a bittersweet air. A similar atmosphere surrounds Tom's nascent romance with a young woman (Julie Neesam) who he doesn't have the chance to go on an official date with before he's called to action. Intercut with all of this drama is the real documentary footage that chronicles the preparations for the D-Day landings, including incredible but unfathomable footage of the testing of war machines and recruits practicing keeping their rifles dry.

As the edit jumps imperceptibly between the two forms - longtime Kubrick cinematographer John Alcott used old German lenses so that fact and fiction merged seamlessly - it also stilts the narrative momentum. Instead, it is the momentum of feeling that matters. The growing sense of doom. In the film's most touching scene, Tom writes a letter home to his parents to tell them he doesn't think he'll return from Europe. He's made his peace with it, but he couldn't bear the thought of them only hearing of it from an official communiqué. In some ways, that is the underlying success of Overlord, to tell not the stories of heroism on foreign soil, but the quiet dignity and tragedy of those who boarded the landing craft knowing they wouldn't return.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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