It is chastening to look over the many, many films we’ve never seen in this country that have nonetheless fetched top awards at the Berlin, Venice, and Cannes film fetes over the decades—you could consider it a lost-cinema legacy, filtered for excellence by the festival system but forgotten all the same. One such winner, Stuart Cooper’s Overlord split a Silver Bear in 1975 Berlin, an odd achievement for a low-budget British film about WWII that’s composed of 50 percent or more archival footage. Cooper’s ambitions were primarily textural—he spent years hunting through the national archives for images from the most photographed war ever waged, and used period lenses and film stock for the fictional material. His co-conspirator was august cinematographer John Alcott, who shot in a fastidiously anachronistic style immediately before realizing the candlelit universe of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Cooper’s story is rather All Quiet–ish, and deliberately generic: An unassuming lad (Brian Stirner) signs up, endures basic training, and eventually faces combat, confronting the meat grinder of Normandy Beach during the eponymous invasion. Despite the technical effort, Alcott’s black-and-white celluloid doesn’t so much resemble wartime British films (or doc footage) as much as echo the kitchen-sink realism that followed in the postwar years. It’s still a feat of period filmmaking. More than that, Overlord‘s revivification of a wasteland Europe offers up a powerful whip lesson for the postwar complacent: that the waging of war, even this most romanticized of conflicts, means bringing a corpse-mountain hell to someone’s home neighborhood.