1942 – The third year of the World War II, enslaved by the Nazis, continental Europe lies in ruins. But in the east, in Russia, the Red Army is putting up a violent resistance to the legions of the Third Reich.
Desperate fighting for every inch of land goes on along the entire, five-thousand-mile-long, front line. Both armies suffer severe losses every day. And neither will settle for anything but victory.
Victory at any cost!
Review: First Squad, The Moment of Truth is a joint animation project of Japan’s Studio 4°C and Russian-Canadian company Molot Entertainment. Studio 4°C is more prominently known for its work with Spriggan (1998), Steamboy (2005) and more recently their involvement with the reboot of ThunderCats (2011). The film’s production was originally announced in 2007. First Squad would make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival on May 13, 2009 and would see a Russian release later in the year during October. Its official domestic North American release on Blu-ray and DVD is today, January 17, 2012.
The movie begins and describes the opening days of World War II. The German army continues its Nazi march to the east, hoping to gain a further foothold into Mother Russia. The Soviets and their Red Army however resist and First Squad details ‘The Moment of Truth’ on the Eastern Front. In the background lurks a secret war of the occult and it’s up to the Soviet’s special and secretive Division Six to do what no one else can. Or in fact everyone else just doesn’t know about. With their best agent, a clairvoyant Nadya Ruslanova at the helm, it’s up to her as she travels to the world of the undead to reclaim her fallen comrades – the First Squad. It’s up to them to battle Germany’s own occult group, the Ahnenerbe and their attempt to raise Baron Von Wolf and fulfill the prophecy of his return 700 years later.
While the runtime for First Squad is listed at 73 minutes, that’s in fact a ‘long version’ of the movie. The anime film itself is actually only slightly over an hour in length, which is referred to as the ‘short version’ on disc. The differences are as follows.
The long version includes ‘mockumentary’ commentary in the form of present day sequences, where both Soviet and German war veterans retell portions of the film in relation to their own involvement. Added to this are various historians, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and other ‘professionals’ giving further credence to the events, which happen throughout First Squad. The ideas of children wandering on the battlefield to help, the notions of secret wars, thousands of spies behind enemy lines and the moment of truth when a battle turns in your favor. All of it works to give the film more substance. A partial validity is prearranged to certain segments by historian commentary. And similarly it’s these same historians that comment on the unknown supernatural aspects, which play out in the film as well. I don’t doubt the relative history of the war and I don’t believe First Squad would have us think otherwise. The film is presented in a factual manner, but tells us beneath the true history of the war is the subtext of this unknown supernatural story. Whereby the Red Army was able to overturn the Nazi’s on the Eastern Front.
From a documentary aspect it works, the interspersed dialogue from real life people in between the film itself adds to the subtle grainy-esque archival presentation of First Squad visually. Yet the overall cohesiveness of it feels half-baked. It doesn’t necessary try to be truthfully cheesy, First Squad with the documentary aspects tries to be truthful when we know it isn’t. It’s too unbelievable in respect to the storyline, which is incredibly slow to start, carries a weak exposition and underwhelming follow through to its end. In that same sense, it feels like the movie isn’t a one-off, it becomes open-ended enough to promote, yes there could be more. Perhaps in the tune of anime series complete with fillers that could’ve been or is still to come. In the end First Squad is a setup to its world, the mysteries behind World War II, as they would have us believe or more so question. It’s presented in an alternative factual manner, not ridiculous, but it’s still equally not engaging and really just not enough.
The short version is simply the film without all the interlaced commentary. Because of this the film is more fluid, but still has severe pacing issues as the runtime becomes shorter and you realize near the end not to expect much. However even by that point, it still seemingly disappoints because you wonder slightly ‘what was the point’ overall. First Squad lacks salability, just like it half commits, it half presents the film and the documentary aspects. It is still without a doubt an interesting concept, perhaps if it was more self-aware of what it was doing and fully embraced this fantastical reality that has been elaborately setup, then maybe. I’m in the camp if you’re going to invest in a crazy idea, be crazy. Especially considering that some of the characters including its lead are based on real prototypes. It becomes further disappointing in the sense the idea they present isn’t grounded completely.
I can’t fully recommend First Squad, The Moment of Truth. But if you’re interested in a different take on the occult interlaced with World War II history – then look no further. While the Blu-ray transfer quality is clean and visually sharp, the animation itself is simply consistent and adequate. The one thing that I did appreciate was the ‘Russian’ language dialogue being available, alongside the normal English and Japanese dialogue. It added to the presentation value of the film, given the setting and its characters. So if you do watch First Squad, I highly recommend giving that a go from the immersive standpoint. There were no extras or special features aside from trailers for the release of Redline, which is now available, and the upcoming Blu-ray release of Battle Royale in March 2012. Overall, First Squad was a curious collaborative effort, which I wish had followed through more whole-heartedly.
I give First Squad, The Moment of Truth: 5 out of 10.