Trench 11. 2018. Directed by Leo Scherman. Screenplay by Scherman & Matt Booi.
Starring Rossif Sutherland, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Carrick, Shaun Benson, Ted Atherton, Luke Humphrey, Jeff Strome, Adam Hurtig, Karine Vanasse, John B. Lowe, Werner Artinger, & Andrew Cecon.
Not Rated. 90 minutes.
War horror’s out there. 1977’s Shock Waves starring none other than John Carradine and Peter Cushing merges Nazis with zombies, as did the Dead Snow movies three decades later. Michael Mann got creepy and wonderfully weird with The Keep. There’s modern stuff like Dog Soldiers, Frankenstein’s Army, The Objective, and an upcoming flick produced by J.J. Abrams called Overlord. Many of the war horror movies in existence take on World War II. Some have dug into Vietnam. In the past few years there have been several using the Invasion of Iraq to explore monstrous themes (Boots on the Ground isn’t a great one, though uses its story to make strong commentary at times). Not often have we seen the First World War presented as horror.
Trench 11 takes place on November 2nd, 1918 on the Western Front, right near the end of the Hundred Days Offensive. A group of Allied soldiers – led by Lieutenant Berton (Rossif Sutherland) – are tasked with tunnelling underneath a German compound. They wind up discovering a horrifying secret instead of gaining an advantage over the enemy. Chaos, blood, and death ensue.
Director Leo Scherman – who co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Booi – focuses on the brutality of war, regardless on which side people are fighting. The story uses infection-style horror to examine the effects of war on those who had no choice but to be conscripted into nationalist violence, led blind underground like worms by men who only knew the surface of things. The character of Berton allows the conversation about war to include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before it was named. As a post-modern work, Trench 11 looks back, a century later, and takes inventory of all the ways soldiers were left between a rock and a hard place with few options to retain their morality or sanity.
Lt. Berton is the protagonist of the story. Fitting, as the overarching theme of the movie is the war’s effects on human beings. Berton’s great at mining and digging tunnels, so his expertise is put to use when tunnel warfare was used on the Western Front. At one point, he was stranded underground, stuck below the earth for 80 days before digging himself out. After this he suffered shell shock, or what we now understand to be PTSD. He’s needed badly when the Allies wanted to dig underneath a German structure, the Wotan Compound, and this forces him back underground.
Berton becomes a mythic, Greek-like figure— one of those fabled heroes who ventured down into the Underworld on a mission, only to return irreparably changed by the journey. PTSD is a remnant of his time in the Underworld, a.k.a the tunnels of the Western Front. The tunnels are akin to Tartarus, “as far beneath Hades as Heaven is above Earth.” There’s a distinction between Hades, as the place of the dead, and Tartarus, a space of eternal punishment, a fate worse than death. If keeping with the mythological there’s another connection with the German compound, Wotan. The name Wotan, also spelled Woden, is another name for the Norse god Odin. The division between Hades and Tartarus comes out further once Berton and his crew stumble onto the secrets beneath the German compound.
The Allies find a German officer’s been conducting experiments on soldiers and engineered an infection, like a bad case of the worms – again, drawing on ideas of being underground – crossed with zombie lore. In this sense, we can fully draw out the Underworld analogies. The Western Front battlefield itself, or any war battlefield, is like Hell on Earth, or Hades. Somehow there’s a worse place below it, where there exist nastier horrors. The tunnels represent this other place as Tartarus.
Tartarus is a place of punishment. What’s more punishing than dying in war then being reanimated as an undead soldier to fight again and again and again? In Tartarus, Titans were punished by being locked into an existence of repetitive personal Hell. Like Tantalus (where we get the English word ‘tantalising’): made to stand in a pool of water with low hanging fruit tree branches nearby, but when he tried drinking, the water receded, and when he tried eating, the branch pulled away. This is the same fate as these soldiers in the tunnels below the battlefield, that dungeon, made to relive their experiences of war – not unlike the repetitive trauma of PTSD Berton suffers from – in a zombified cycle.
“Both sides have already been infected”
The largest theme involves the living Hell of war. Moving away from literal, physical interpretations of Hell and its various incarnations in mythology, Trench 11 touches heavily on the early seeds of Nazism growing within German society. More dichotomies emerge of the surface v. what’s underneath outside of Hades/Tartarus. This early Nazism is below the surface, festering, and becoming rancid in the nation’s gut. It’s like the engineered virus, hiding beneath the skin waiting to emerge. Everything’s there that will eventually become Nazi Germany, from the secret genetic experiments to the Norse-named compound. Altogether this again speaks to the animal extent to which humans can go when war infects a society and in turn its citizens.
Let’s jump quickly back to the Greeks. War’s horrors have always affected people deeply. Despite popular belief, Vietnam wasn’t the first time soldiers were fed drugs to keep them vigilant, violent, and virile. Homer’s Iliad mentions poppies, the source of opium, and warriors drinking wine before heading off to battle.
Parallel this with the men of WWI, like one of the soldiers in Lt. Berton’s crew, who takes cocaine frequently, and Berton himself chugging whiskey like it’s going dry. Cocaine was so widely used, even outside of war, it was offered by the pharmacist in bottles of Forced March. The name played off the idea of a forced march by soldiers— a fast march to cover long distances in short time. Knowing what we know now about cocaine, it’s not hard to see the Hell of war as evidenced in the ways soldiers obscured the violence from their conscious mind in order to keep engaging in it day after day, year after year.
“… an educated violence, a violence you went to school for.”
Scherman takes no stance on the issues that led to or of WWI itself. Instead, he draws on the idea of war as a hellish experience for all sides. No matter who you’re fighting for, even if you’re on the ‘good’ side of a war, you’re required to abandon normal morality and kill your enemy— men you’ve never met, and know nothing about, either. If you’re at war, you’re at work doing evil.
Trench 11 uses trench and tunnel warfare as a metaphor to explore the embedded, buried, yet inherent violence in men and war. The literal descent into the ground is a figurative descent within the soul. During one scene, a character says “You must expect the worst down here” in reference to the tunnels. This line feels like a warning straight out of classic literature, like the inscription over Hell’s entrance in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
The movie’s story and its plot(s) are a wide reaching allegory about the ways war affects everybody, from the so-called bad guys to the supposed good guys. Scherman doesn’t necessarily have a hopeless view on humanity, he shows Lt. Berton reemerging from the dirt at the end, coming back into the light, like he’s resurrected from the dead. The movie refuses to deny the evil and hatred of war, illustrating how all sides are infected by the violence, through and through, and even as the Allies were fighting the terrors of the world they were losing bits of their humanity having to kill for peace. Humanity only has one side, and it has nothing to do with war.