First Squad: The Moment of Truth
During the winter of 1941, the Second World War has come to a temporary standstill on the Eastern Front. Ahnenerbe, an occult organization within the SS, calculates that the next "moment of truth" (a rare moment when the actions of a single man can determine the outcome of an event) is approaching on the Eastern Front. The man is an anonymous Soviet whose actions will bring success to the Soviet offensive, and to eliminate him, the spiritualists of Ahnenerbe summon the armies of the long-dead Baron von Wolff from the underworld. To counter this plan, an equivalent special occult branch of the Soviet Intelligence, called the 6th Division, deploys its best agent - a 14-year-old girl named Nadya who is the only survivor of a mysterious special operations unit called the "First Squad". (Adapted from ANN)
In my opinion, there are two viable ways to write fiction set in an alternate timeline: either one vigorously researches the history that did occur and uses that knowledge to create a plausible universe whose story remains relevant to our own, or one abandons any pretext of seriousness and lets loose with comic storytelling. Other approaches are prone to destroying the audience's suspension of disbelief, and unfortunately, First Squad, a Japanese and Russian co-creation about two fictional "occult" divisions within the World War Two-era German and Soviet armies, fails because it does precisely that. Its ambitious but farfetched premise of a secret war fought between an elite esper force of Russian teenagers and a cloister of Nazi-allied shamans is taken far too seriously considering its careless plotting, and its attempt to use documentary-style interviews of supposed veterans flounders under the weight of monologues that are at best bland and at worst entirely irrelevant to the events unfolding onscreen. Although there are scattered moments of success and some lovely sequences of animation to behold, First Squad is ultimately an example of an interesting idea entirely destroyed by poor execution, a perfect testament to the difficulty of crafting alternate-timeline fiction successfully.
First Squad might best be described as a "docudrama", a film about a non-fictional or purportedly non-fictional subject matter presented as a dramatic story that may also include insert interviews to add detailed information. Such films and television specials as United 93, Zodiac, and Supervolcano all fall into this category, and in spite of being animated, First Squad behaves very similarly to them, taking up most of its running time with a dramatization of its supposed underground war and using the rest for live-action interviews with veterans, historians, psychologists, and anyone else whose testimony would conceivably help the story of the 6th Division come to life. The interviews, in my opinion, represent a potentially exciting idea bungled by pretentiousness and dull dialogue, an attempt at realism that falls flat on its face due to clumsy execution. Although the people could plausibly be real veterans and historians at first glance, an internet search proves that they are, in fact, played by actors, and their "reminiscence" thus comes across as generic, the fabricated "historical analysis" seems self-indulgent, and the assurance that such nonsense actually occurred becomes laughable. The interviews are sequenced haphazardly, too, as many of them cut into suspenseful moments and some, namely some "scientific" testimony about hypnosis, seem entirely unnecessary to a plot that, given the care with which this "realist" side was taken, would probably have best been without this pretext.
But if one ignores that framework, is it possible to view First Squad as fiction and enjoy it as such? Well, not entirely, as it's still something of a clumsy film, albeit one that could have worked had it been directed better. I certainly did appreciate the care taken with its visuals, as the art style, which features a gloomy color scheme rarely found in anime, is well-suited to the snowy wastelands and dreary encampments of the Eastern front, and the animators took good care with the film's more dramatic sequences (the music, by a famous Japanese dance musician named DJ Krush, was a little tuneless for my taste, but fans of his might want to check the soundtrack out). And indeed, there are many enjoyable moments that simply belong in a better film, including some beautiful dream sequences reminiscent of Satoshi Kon's work, an intriguing vision of limbo as a "movie theater of memories", and the film's fascinating if pseudoscientific take on the underworld and the methods that the Soviets use to access it. I can hardly say that the film's failure rests on its characters, either, as Nadya herself is the prototype for an interesting person, a stoic young girl with a talent for telekinesis who is given enough backstory to be sympathetic, if not quite empathetic. There are a fair number of characters that might have been more interesting if more effort had been put into them, such as a Rasputin-esque mystic who gives her some strange "spiritual guidance" without ever really revealing what his part is, but there's at least nobody who's annoying, and such dramatic storytelling is usually driven more by plot than characters in any case.
The problem with First Squad, really, is that aside from the animation itself, everything feels partially completed, akin to a manuscript whose editor unwisely decided not to proofread. Indeed, there are enough plot holes that I would easily believe that this movie had never been looked over properly, chief among them the fact that the audience never really learns what really makes the First Squad at all important to winning the war. While Nadya herself has demonstrated powers of telekinesis, the movie provides no reason as to why retrieving her deceased friends is worth risking one's life: though likable enough on the outside, they get so little screen time that it's hard to really even say who they are, and when shown fighting, they brandish guns, flamethrowers, and grenades, weapons that one would think a living and grown-up human could handle as capably as an undead teenager. The real necessity of the anonymous (and virtually indistinguishable) soldier upon whom "The Moment of Truth" fixates is barely established, either, while the backstory of the Baron amounts to that of a God-crazy fanatic who was once stupid enough to invade Russia (think back to your European History class...has invading Russia ever once been a good idea?). When one looks closely, meanwhile, there's a lot about First Squad that just doesn't make sense: the pair of soldiers sent to kill Nadja are female in spite of the fact that the Nazis never trained women, and while it might be cool that Nadja uses a Katana as her primary weapon, it doesn't seem likely to me that an itinerant Russian teenager would have had a locally rare Japanese sword in her possession. Neither of those anachronisms gets explained, and while historians will probably find the pretentiousness of this film to be staggering, some among them may also get a kick out of finding other such mistakes. One thing that's a bit hard to laugh at, however, is the uncomfortable degree of Russian Nationalism embedded into it. I don't think it's any coincidence that the Germans are depicted as bony-faced old men while the Russian characters are, without exception, attractive, virile, and headstrong, and not a single glance at the repressiveness of Stalin's regime is ever to be had. The actions of the First Squad and their superiors are noble, but considering the historical reality that existed, they feel a bit too noble to be believed, just as Che Guevara's kind and idealistic personality in The Motorcycle Diaries is hard to swallow once one learns about his atrocities.
While First Squad looks good on the outside and kicks off to a moderately enjoyable start, it is a mess in basically every other way. It is entirely torn to pieces by its own self-importance and insistence on being serious, its vaguely interesting premise destroyed by poor editing and some filmmaking experiments that should never have made it into the final cut. First Squad ends on a complete cliffhanger, but there's no evidence that a sequel will ever be produced, and while I was frustrated by the lack of closure, I don't feel a lot of regret. It's a frustrating and unrewarding film to watch, one that screams of squandered potential and the likes of which I probably would not be willing to watch again.
First Squad isn't unwatchable, but it's certainly messy. It has enough good material to give it a second star, but it's too pretentious to ever recommend. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: There's a lot of violence, and much of it is bloody, although there's little to see in the way of sexuality or profanity. Kids shouldn't watch this, but older teenagers won't have any problems.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Russian with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (1/1)
First Squad: The Moment of Truth © 2009 Studio 4˚C / Molot Entertainment Film Company
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