‘We felt lost souls, who had forgotten that men are made for something else, that time exists and hope, that the earth can be used for something other than burying the dead.’Guy Sajer
5th Panzergrenadier Company,
Eastern front, 1944/45
A year or so following completion of the Fallen Eagle screenplay I was again called on to write a further, much shorter script. Despite Fallen Eagle not being filmed, such had been my enjoyment in writing it, I agreed.
By this time, world war two re-enactment group 21 Infanterie had changed their impression to that of a late war company engaged on the eastern front. The group, based in the southeast of England, had also acquired a permanent, more central location near to the historic town of Market Bosworth. Here they had the opportunity to create a bespoke site complete with trench systems and emplacements that were in keeping with the period. Since their inception, the group had been commited to authenticity and historically accurate portrayals. This had not gone unnoticed.
In my earlier post I explained how accuracy and attention to detail had brought this small group of history enthusiasts a fair degree of renown, attracting the attention of film companies and producers of historical documentaries. They’ve since been engaged in many productions and their CV includes work on top-drawer productions such as Hurricane.
Hired by clients such as The History Channel and National Geographic, film work soon became a mainstay of 21 Infanterie’s operation. Lucrative and prestigious as this was, they also wished to create their own production using the new Market Bosworth site as a film set. In keeping with the group’s current impression, the fifteen-to twenty-minute film would be set on the Eastern Front during the German army’s retreat from Russia. Once engaged, I set to work.
My main reference point for the project was the book The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. This personal narrative of that period in history was a difficult read but provided me with a suitable focus for the account I wished to portray.
As with my previous offering, the drama would be a snapshot from history capturing the trials of men simply struggling to survive. The war itself was to be no more than a backdrop. Like a frame around a picture, the bitter conflict would simply present the unfolding drama. It was to be the men that would remain front and centre.
Aided by the above timeline and other research material, I began by making notes of those elements I considered would be vital in accurately portraying the events. Before drafting one word of the screenplay it was necessary for me to gain a sense of the actual drama that had occurred during that time and place in history.
Here then are my notes:
Background and Mood
What have been the events that have led directly to those shown in the opening scene?
The Courland pocket, September 1944. Germany’s Army group North, once committed on the northern flank of the east front near Leningrad, is now in retreat.
Orders come only from army high command, with Hitler having absolute control. Strategic information is kept secret – even from army commanders themselves. The Germans, although benefitting from better equipment than their enemy, are vastly outnumbered.
The army knows that no substantial support can be given to it. There are no reserves – of men or material. All commanders can do is juggle available units as required by the situation. As such they cede initiative to their enemy. The resulting strain is immense for all ranks, as commanders are prohibited from removing units to rest areas. Unlike the Russians, whose numbers appear almost limitless, the German army is disintegrating.
It is a war of attrition weighted heavily in the Russians’ favour and the results appear inevitable.
What is the character’s mood? Are they buoyant and optimistic? Fearful and doubtful of success? What is their morale? Do they fear their enemy? Hate them? Respect?
The characters are professional soldiers with a strong sense of duty. Once proud of their nation’s achievements, they now realise they are witnessing its destruction. There is an air of finality, each character aware they are heading toward a dire outcome. There is little hope.
The Germans are awed by the massively superior numbers of Russians swarming on their heels, despite the Russians’ fighting abilities and tactical clumsiness engendering a sense of scorn.
Tales of barbaric acts committed by the Red army on captured Germans also create fear and anxiety among the German troops.
What do the characters see? Hear?
The landscape is wide open, flat and empty beneath huge cloud-stacked skies. The land is a mix of vast agricultural collectives, and barren, windblown moorland.
Does the opening scene carry a sense of foreboding?
The bare vastness and lack of substantial cover creates among the men a sense of insignificance, leaving them feeling totally vulnerable.
Is there immediate danger? For whom?
The Luftwaffe have so far managed to cling on to air superiority, but Russian air power is ever increasing with more and more strikes finding targets among the withdrawing Germans. Enemy ground troops are judged to be many kilometres to the northeast and east, but the front is extremely fluid and intelligence known to be unreliable.
These issues create constant doubt and heightened unease.
What tool is used to engage the audience in the opening? Is there a sense of tension here?
The opening scene shows Stef, the young infantryman, flattening a mound of soil on a freshly dug grave a few metres from a parked covered wagon. The wagon bears red-crosses. We approach the man from a distance, giving us awareness of the wide, open landscape. He looks up into the camera as we near him. He’s weary. Troubled. ‘How many more must we bury?’ he asks.
The scene cuts to another POV and we see he has addressed an older, seasoned veteran. This is Max.
Conflict and perspective
Aside from the obvious background conflict of war, is there further conflict here? i.e. Personal, situational, elemental? Do the two main characters have conflicting views? Is there disunity among the main characters? How will this be portrayed?
The story will be portrayed through Stef’s POV. He is young, idealist and driven by an unwavering sense of duty.
The obstacles that prevent him delivering badly wounded soldiers to an aid station create a sense of uselessness. Without medical equipment or adequate water, his only means of helping the men is speed. And on the rough moorland it is speed that increases their discomfort and is killing them.
In contrast to Steff’s naivety, Max is a weathered veteran, wise and resourceful with an old soldier’s sense of reality and pragmatism.
The two do not conflict, but Stef’s naïve frustration is countered by Max’s down-to-earth acceptance of reality.
What will be used to create dramatic effect in the cuts from scene to scene?
The group has the individual members (actors) and an array of equipment to create the story and provide an impressive realism to the events. The open landscape at Bosworth can, through careful filming, add a dramatic perspective. It and the planned earthworks will be valuable props in themselves.
So too will the truck. Loaded with badly wounded men – who’s plight will not be completely revealed, but will be suggested and hinted at throughout – the vehicle, faced with various obstacles along the way, will become another, less obvious character.
What is the dialogue’s main purpose? Is it to reveal plot/move story forward, or portray characters’ views and emotions?
The script will draw on the actors’ ability to show incidents visually, through actions and performance wherever possible. Dialogue will be used sparingly to fill in any information gaps and move events forward.
The actors will be limited in their ability to accurately show a full range of emotions, so events and actions themselves must be carefully scripted to demonstrate these to the viewer.
The controlling idea
The retreat eastward was a significant event within the larger historical WW2 context. The film will show only a small part. So, what is the aim of the film? What concept is being shown? Bravery, compassion, futility of war? Is the film high concept, focusing on the struggle of opposing forces, or is low concept, with emphasis on character?
The film is ‘low concept’, character-driven. There is a basic plot in which Stef and Max must overcome obstacles to perform a mercy mission against a backdrop of savage war, but ultimately, it is their predicament and plight that will engage the viewer.
We see the men’s grim doggedness against terrible and overwhelming odds. We also see the futility of war itself, though the war becomes the ‘elephant in the room’ as we focus on the two characters’ efforts and the hindrances facing them.
To engage the audience and have them develop a stake in the outcome, character personality must be expressed early. How do we do this?
Actions, i.e. looking at family photographs stroking a luck charm? Mannerisms such as licking lips, checking and rechecking weapons? Speech? Reminiscences?
Stef’s war-weary naivety will become clear in the graveside scene as he expresses his sense of responsibility for the plight of the men placed under his care. We also see his frustration, caused by the slowness of his journey across this vast terrain – a land which, itself, appears to conspire against him, confounding his efforts.
In this and the ensuing scenes we see his reliance on Max, who we quickly realise is his anchor in the grim situation they both face. Max’s reaction to Stef’s initial question (above) and his resourcefulness in providing for them both despite the war-imposed deprivations, show him to be a kindly, paternal figure, out of place against the backdrop of the eastern front.
The supporting characters will also demonstrate the army’s increasing desperation and feeling of impending doom as the Red Army closes in around them. They will also demonstrate the Germans’ commitment to the Fatherland, by continuing to meet their foe, undaunted, despite overwhelming odds.
What visual tools are at my disposal?
The wide, open vista lacks cover and creates a sense of vulnerability, becoming an antagonist in the film, as though allied to the enemy.
The backdrop and seemingly endless road across open farmland and moor renders the soldiers small and insignificant.
Dirty uniforms, groaning wounded and constant menace all around will portray the grim reality of war on the eastern front. There will be a sense of hopelessness and fatigue.
The two main character’s dogged determination to carry out their mercy mission will appear at odds with the apparent panic of senior ranks fleeing westward.
In my post Evolution of a Screenplay I explain the use of screenplay marketing tools: The Pitch and The Premise. In the case of Lost Souls there was to be no marketing so no such tools were required. Nevertheless, as a means of focussing and ‘fine-tuning’ my idea, I decided to write both. Here they are:
Lithuania, 1944. A young Wehrmacht infantryman and his rugged feldwebel struggle to perform a mercy mission through crumbling German lines, rapidly pursued by a vengeful Red Army.
Green infantryman Stef, aided by seasoned veteran Max are transporting wounded soldiers to a rest area aid station. On route, they encounter the unease and chaos of fragmenting German lines in high retreat. Anxiety is amplified when Red Army skirmishers attack the fleeing troops. Terror becomes tragedy when a stray bullet strikes Max, killing him and leaving Stef without his guiding paternal comrade for the first time since his arrival at the front.
I hope that you, the reader, have enjoyed this further ‘evolution’ of a screenplay. Armed with my script, the group commenced filming, but it quickly became apparent that enthusiastic and committed WW2 re-enactors do not necessarily make for good actors. The project was scrapped and my script has languished in my drawer since then. Until today. For here is ‘Lost Souls‘ presented as a free, downloadable PDF file. To access it, simply click on the image.
[Note: Apologies – some of the end-of-page formatting corrupted during the transfer to PDF.]