Offensively Interesting

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Frankenstein’s Army exploits historical tragedy, and yet I don’t entirely hate it.
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I’ve been having trouble finding a movie to write about for you guys. Since it’s the season, I’ve been looking at horror movies, but most of the ones I’ve seen recently have not stirred my interest enough to warrant a response. I suppose I should be grateful for Frankenstein’s Army, then, for motivating me to put hand to keyboard again, even if my motivation is not love but…Christ, I don’t know, some sort of horrified fascination.

Frankenstein’s Army is a found-footage horror movie set in World War II. While the exact place and date never specified, the movie seems to be set somewhere in Eastern Europe in the late 1944-early 1945 period. The film is presented as raw footage of a small squad of Red Army men filmed by a cameraman attached to the unit, ostensibly to edit together for propaganda purposes. Initially, the film sticks to its documentary milieu, chronicling the unit as they…well, as they do what the Red Army was doing in Eastern Europe in ’44 and ’45. The plot proper kicks off when a distress call sends them off to an out-of-the-way mining town to relieve a besieged unit of fellow Soviets. As they march, the cameraman begins to notice rotting bodies in the woods wearing German uniforms and crammed full of machinery. They arrive at the town to find it deserted, filled with signs of mass execution and even more curious contraptions. In due course, their commanding officer is disemboweled in a church, and the truth comes out: the town has been the site of Nazi experiments in super-soldiers, which has resulted in the entire population of the town, both civilian and military, being converted into bio-mechanical horrors. At that point, the shit hits the fan.

As you may have gathered, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble sorting out my thoughts on this movie. The problem is that this is one of those movies that cuts right in the great subjective muddle of What Is Appropriate To Depict In What Context. Now, I’m from North America, which means I was raised in a culture that has appropriated the imagery of the Third Reich for all manner of pulp villainy. I’m not even opposed to the concept; I own the last two Wolfenstein games and a fair amount of frivolous literature on the subject. Nazi Germany and Second World War provide endless fodder for stories. But there is a line. You can skirt it, you can dip across it, but if you stray too far, if you delve too deeply into the horror of the regime and its war, you will have to deal with the implications of your setting.

Suffice to say, Frankenstein’s Army crosses the line early and often. At times it made the movie damned hard to get through, since no matter what over-the-top spectacle occurred on the screen, I would always think to myself that something like that actually happened. Not the village of Nazi cyborgs, of course, but everything else. The mass graves, the casual brutalization of civilians and POWs, the rape (there are two attempts not entirely elided by the camera), the piles of hands and feet in mining carts, the rows of bodies hanging from the ceiling, it’s all in here. The campy nature of the film does little to help matters: in one scene a German nurse will narrowly avoid getting raped by one of the Soviet characters, and in the next she accidentally pulls out the brain of another while trying to remove his crushed helmet.

Suffice to say, I would not recommend this film to anyone with a family history in the East from that time. And yet I cannot condemn the film entirely. Frankenstein’s Army is exploitative trash, true, but even trash has its virtues. For me, the fact that the movie referenced actual atrocities gave it another dimension. Ludicrous B-movies from Europe about Nazis doing ridiculous things are nothing new, but unlike Dead Snow or Iron Sky, Frankenstein’s Army doesn’t just invoke the Nazis as cartoon villains that could be easily recast with any historical or fictional group. In its own terrible unintentional ham-handed way, Frankenstein’s Army stays true to history.

I don’t see Frankenstein’s Army as “just” a creature feature. In its own way, the movie is a nightmare portal fantasy, a voyage into a world that depicts the violence and terror of the Eastern Front in the language of pulp and grindhouse cinema. It’s a world where suffering is universal, and the only purpose of a human being is to provide raw materials to be extracted and assembled into an augmented monster. The monsters, the workers and soldiers of this world, take no joy in their new bodies, as portions of their original minds still dwell within their ruined skulls. However, with their new limbs that can crush, slice, and pierce, they stand above the humans they consume. The method by which humans become monsters is an automatic process, one that does not differentiate between race or ideology, and one that not operate under any command. By the end of the movie almost every character introduced – civilian, Nazi, and Soviet – has been converted. It is a system that could theoretically grow to encompass the planet.

While the creatures operate without a ruler, they do have a creator, the titular Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Karel Roden). Frankenstein, the grandson of Shelley’s doctor, is an affably monomaniacal sociopath who plays the well-worn role of mad scientist. But there is an interesting twist to the doctor’s backstory. Rather than being an ersatz Mengele, this Frankenstein was one of the Reich’s victims, having done a spell in the camps for his family name and his habit of mutilating animals. The experience appeared to be the “diamond bullet” moment for Frankenstein; afterwards, his work revolved around finding and eliminating the madness in man that had given birth to the camps and the war. After his gifts were recognized and he was given work by the Reich, his project went on, eventually consuming his masters and replicating in microcosm the insanity he wanted to end.

Mind you, all this may be overselling the movie. At heart, Frankenstein's Army is a creature feature, and taken on those metrics it succeeds in what it sets out to do, albeit by leaning heavily on the design of its creatures. Still, I think this is one movie I will need to rewatch at some point.
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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 23:07 on 2013-10-28
Suffice to say, I would not recommend this film to anyone with a family history in the East from that time.

Yeah... I remember seeing the trailer for this a while back and thinking it was most certainly Not For Me. at least it seems to try and do something interesting with the utterly schlocky premise, unlike Iron Sky, which is still, I think, the worst movie I've ever seen the first 30 minutes of.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 18:54 on 2013-10-30
God, that bad? I never bothered with it since it seemed like one of those movies where everyone thought the whole thing was a big joke, meaning it was more fun to make than to actually watch.

This one did have something going on, but I suspect that's more my reading than authorial intent. From what I can tell, the director designed all the cyborg creatures for another project called Worst Case Scenario that never got made. From what I've heard, it was about Germany taking revenge for their World Cup loss to Denmark by unleashing an army of Nazi cyborgs, something a little more farcical in the vein of Dead Snow. I don't know what exactly motivated him to create this new story, but I'm not that optimistic about his motivations.

I also seem to be the only reviewer who mentioned this whole "historical context" thing, which is...a mite disconcerting.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 20:36 on 2013-10-30
I never bothered with it since it seemed like one of those movies where everyone thought the whole thing was a big joke, meaning it was more fun to make than to actually watch.

That's pretty much the sense I got from it, too and I have not watched it either, even if I feel a slight obligation to do so. The whole Star Wreck thing started in the finnish BBS's in the nineties, or that's where I first stumbled across them nad the whole nazis from the far side of the moon has a sort of early nerd humor thing about it. Was it from a song, or a game or a comic? I don't really know. But the whole thing is originally funny only because of its stupidity and it seems that they did not remember to take that into account. Well I haven't seen it, but still...

This movie, while it seems interesting for the reasons underlined, I still get the shivers nowadays from WWII exploitation, especially as it seems that newer generations(of which I am a part of) seem to be so removed from the horror, that it becomes a sort of grisly fascination in a nightmare that the viewers are completely insulated from, except for cues to trigger regular emotional reactions. I have avoided Inglourious Basterds for uncertain reasons too, perhaps related to this. Perhaps this movie would be worth some point, perhaps.
Michal at 00:07 on 2013-10-31
I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds the first time I saw it in the theater. But the more I think about it, the less I like it, and I'd be hesitant to recommend it to anyone now.

And yes, Iron Sky is that bad. It's a film that presents another riff on that one scene from Downfall as the absolute height of comedy. I walked out of the screening and spent the rest of the night grumbling loudly.
Arthur B at 00:46 on 2013-10-31
Inglorious Basterds is, so far as I can tell, Tarantino riffing on those war-era comics where plucky soldiers would go and punch famous Nazis in the jaw for democracy.

In other words, the sort of thing which I guess kind of made sense as morale-boosting propaganda when the war was actually happening, but kind of distasteful when we now know that the Nazis weren't just comic book villains (despite their yen for snazzy uniforms and megalomaniac monologues).

I liked it and laughed at it, but not in a way I'm proud of or which makes me say "yes, everyone should go see this".
I saw Inglorious Basterds as the height of the
Americo-centric view of WWII. It's essentially how Hitler was defeated without the Soviets (who aren't even mentioned in the film) being involved at all.
Arthur B at 10:45 on 2013-10-31
Yeah, there's that too, and I'm inclined to suspect that Tarantino was deliberately playing that up to a nigh-ludicrous extent to make the whole thing look silly, but equally I suspect that that's a satire which isn't going to reach any audience members who haven't already noticed how daft the Hollywood myth of World War II is so its utility in skewering that is questionable.
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