The Overlord laboratory, yesterday

‘Overlord’: imagine if the Nazis were at it again

Image credit: Paramount Pictures

Suppose the Nazis had manufactured an army that was fearless, ruthless and impervious to mere bullets. Could such an army exist? Time to watch ‘Overlord’.

Now we all know the Nazis were nasty pieces of work. We know that included in their catalogue of unpleasantness was the use of prisoners of war (and many others including Jews, Romani and Poles) for genetic investigation and that, being Nazis, they dispensed with the theoretical science and went straight for the human experimentation. I write with a light touch, but researching what they did still chills the bones today, even with the familiarity of the tales.

What they didn’t do, as far as we know, was develop a serum to create a fearless fighting force from some fairly apathetic French peasants. This is the basis of ‘Overlord’, a horror flick with plenty of blood, bangs and things that go bump in unexpected ways.

The first thing to mention is that it really isn’t that far-fetched as an idea. Most of the Nazi eugenics (the forerunner to genetics) programme was aimed at creating the Ayran master race. Ayrans, incidentally, originally descended from the people of Atlantis, which demonstrates how barking the whole concept is. Although eugenics is essentially about selective breeding, rather than cross-breeding those with blue eyes and blonde hair the Nazi programme concentrated on sterilising everyone they didn’t want in their master race, including disabled people, those with mental disorders and certain diseases, and, of course, those from ‘inferior’ races.

Led by the likes of Josef Mengele, the experimentation on concentration camp inmates was a whole lot worse, with victims usually effectively being tortured to death. The main drive for these experiments was to devise new weapons of war and to understand how people would react to new chemicals in battle. Some of the most disturbing involved twin children, using one as an experimental control. With such a moral compass, it is actually not stretching the imagination too far to say that they would try to develop substances that would turn people into great warriors – at least who felt no fear or pain and were athletically advantaged – particularly if the people in question were French villagers who had no other practical purpose.

To set the scene, the village in question, in ‘Overlord’, has a church with aircraft detection equipment strapped to its tower. A platoon of American soldiers are dropped in behind enemy lines on the eve of D-Day as Operation Overlord is about to commence on the Normandy beaches behind them. This platoon’s task is to blow up the tower to prevent detection of the Allied aircraft coming over the following morning as the invasion commences.

In the basement beneath the tower the soldiers find sinister laboratories full of glooping tanks and grisly uses of pointless peasants. The science behind the serum isn’t given full TED talk treatment in the film; in fact, it is really reduced to saying it is something filtered through the human body, which seems to be the key part of the process. I think we can put this element down to ‘fanciful’.

The question is, could a serum be created to make mere mortals brave and brawny – and immortal as well. The baddest of the baddies (oozing stereotypical arrogance) proclaimed that “a thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers”. Now we are adding durability to our list as well.

The brave bit is the easy bit. Recreational drugs have long been able to take people to many places that are removed from reality, starting with a humble G&T to loosen inhibitions. Bravery, invincibility even, can be easily manufactured and are behind many of the mindless confrontations in Britain’s town centres every weekend – if only these weekend warriors could add the strength and durability. And this is where our potion-making becomes more difficult.

Firstly, where does the strength come from? Why in these sorts of films does every bit of intervention in the human body seem to give them super strength? I would have thought that if someone started tinkering with the body’s systems the chances are the body would respond by not working as well – probably being a bit lethargic, some random restless leg syndrome, perhaps, or at the very least a bit of a headache.

If we look at the drugs that have been used to improve the performance of athletes, for example anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and creatine, they all promote bulking up the muscles and improved muscle performance. This happens over time and also requires the athlete to put in the hard graft as well – the muscles don’t just grow – so they wouldn’t work in our serum, which requires the victim to be metal-bending from the first moment. Something like epinephrine (adrenaline) might give that initial kick-start but we are talking about from zero to super-strength in seconds without the heart giving up in alarm. It is beyond the foreseeable scope of medicine to have a serum that could instantly improve the performance of bones and muscle by such a degree, nor withstand the effects of multiple bullet wounds to head and heart.

What the serum does do, in the film, besides providing this obligatory ability to crush solid metal objects, is make people angry. Really angry. The sort of anger that makes you want to throw someone across the room so that they crash into a wall, with the bonus that you now have the strength to actually do that. As a consequence, a lot of people in ‘Overlord’ find themselves meeting walls at uncomfortable speeds. I’m not sure the Nazis thought this through and had got necessary training in place to point this new breed of soldier in the right direction. There could be a health and safety issue.

To round it off, this wasn’t a sci-fi film with some ‘Could it? Couldn’t it?’ technology discussion. It was a horror flick with a bit of woolly medicine thrown in. And on that basis, for what it is worth, I thought ‘Overlord’ was pretty enjoyable.

‘Overlord’ goes on general release on 9 November 2018

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